Forensic Anthropology Facilities

WCU's Forensic Anthropology program offers students field and lab research opportunities through the Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOReSt), one of only six outdoor human decomposition facilities in the country, as well as the Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory, equipped for storing and analyzing human remains.

students working in the Forensic Osteology Research Station


Forensic Osteology Research Station

The Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOReSt) is an outdoor human decomposition facility located in Cullowhee, North Carolina. The FOReSt was built in 2007 and is directed by Dr. Cheryl Johnston. It is in the Blue Ridge physiographic province at an altitude of 2271 feet above sea level. The mission of the Forensic Osteology Research Station is to promote education, research, and service.

The FOReSt and the donated human remains associated with it serve to educate students and professionals through experiential learning. The educational foci of the FOReSt are threefold:

1) Decomposition and the broader field of taphonomy 2) Systematic location and recovery of human remains 3) Human skeletal biology

At the FOReSt, education is not limited to human students. Remains donated to the FOReSt aid in training Human Remains Detection (HRD) dogs. The service provided by HRD dogs and their handlers is crucial in locating human remains and bringing closure to families.

The FOReSt is dedicated to research so that our understanding of postmortem events and their implications is deepened. Many of the research projects carried out at the FOReSt focus on improving our ability to estimate the post mortem interval, locate human remains, or understand variation in remains and their surroundings to improve our ability to interpret death scenes.

The service component of the FOReSt’s mission includes providing case consultation to law enforcement, providing training material to HRD dog handlers, and providing service to individuals or families seeking an alternative to traditional funerary practices.

Facility Tours

Out of respect for our donors, we do not offer public or school tours of the FOReSt. If you are a professional in anthropology or a related field such as law enforcement, a medical field, or a funeral professional please contact the Dr. Johnston with your request to observe the FOReSt. Interested individuals may click here to view a video that provides an overview of the FOReSt facility.

Donations to the FOReSt

Download the documents below for information regarding donating human remains to the FOReSt.

Donations Arrangements Made Before Death 
Donation Form for Prearranged Donations
Donations Arrangements Made After Death

Donation Form for Donations Made After Death
Overview Of The Donation Process

For further information regarding the donation process or to ask questions, please contact 
Cheryl A. Johnston, Ph.D., D-ABFA, FAAFS.

Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory

The Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory (WCHIL) is a fully equipped facility dedicated to the recovery, storage, and analysis of human remains. The main WCHIL facility covers 1100 square feet. This laboratory has a single body morgue refrigerator and freezer for the handling and maintenance of fresh and decomposing human remains. The facility is fully equipped for:

  • routine micro and macroscopic analysis and description of bone
  • removal of soft tissue for dry bone analysis
  • casting
  • maintaining chain of evidence
  • state of the art GPS survey and recovery of human remains
  • burned bone and cremation analysis
  • bone trauma replication and assessment

The WCHIL maintains at a separate facility a decomposition research station. Here, through scientific cadaver donations, time standards are being developed for decomposition in the western North Carolina mountain habitat. In conjuction with the decomposition research facility, staffed by nationally recognized instructors, the WCHIL offers cadaver dog training.

Cremation Donations

The Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory (WCHIL) will accept donations of cremations. This is the route we suggest if a donor has an infectious disease at the time of his or her death, weighs more than 250 pounds, or in the event that embalming has taken place, or simply as a matter of individual choice of the deceased or the next-of-kin. If an infectious disease is involved, prior authorization is required before a cremation can be accepted.

As with standard donations, prior arrangements must be made with a funeral home or a crematorium to facilitate the process of transfer to the WCHIL. To maximize the use of cremations in instruction and research we ask that you request that the crematorium not process the cremated remains but to leave them intact after the cremation process. Processed ashes will be accepted although it is preferred that the cremated remains be unprocessed. Due to the cost of cremation the WCHIL cannot pay for the cremation. This will be the responsibility of the next-of-kin or the estate of the deceased.

All other applicable procedures or recommendations described under the Donation Arrangements sections of this web page will be in force.

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