One night he was drinking hard. He must have been trying to drown some pain, fill some void, find some courage. Maybe he was just crazy. His next move was to pick up a handgun and blow out his brains. He was 38 years old.

Now look at him. It's almost six months later. He's lying face down along a path through the woods. Birds are singing; flies are buzzing. This would be a nice place to open a blanket and have a picnic, except he got here first.

He's still wearing his blue denim jacket and jeans secured by a woven cotton belt. But he's gone through some changes since he made his exit. His body has sort of melted inside its denim sheath. His torso is a steamy tub of gray soup, with bones. The flesh of his legs is almost gone, and his sneakers don't fit so well anymore. He's resting in pieces.

His stench rises like a howl that echoes in your nose for hours, for days, forever.

People who loved him must have thought it was all over for him the night he pulled the trigger. Perhaps it was in defiance of that useless end that they decided to send him here, where in death he may perform the good works that eluded him in life.

Let theologians and philosophers speculate on what happens to us when we depart our vale of tears. Here is promise of an afterlife so real it makes your eyes water.

The gates to this putrid paradise are double-padlocked and topped with loops of razor wire. A jolly, jaunty, nonjudgmental Saint Peter holds the key.

William M. Bass III snaps open the locks, then swings wide the outer chain link fence and the inner wooden "modesty" fence. He's dressed for a nature walk in bright shirt, khakis and Nikes. The haircut the Army first gave him during the Korean War has gone gray.

He motions you inside. "What we have here," he says in his tenor twang, "are just lots of bodies in various states of disrepair."

They are all around, about two dozen. Some are nearly fresh, just days past the expiration date. Some have been quietly rotting for 18 months. Up the path past the bluejeans suicide is a 60-year-old heart attack victim laid out nude in the back of a trailer. His white hair is unkempt, his eyes staring in perpetual astonishment. He's recent. Except for his waxy complexion, he doesn't look too bad.

Out in the sun, on the other hand, are two unclothed corpses from Chattanooga. They've been here a week. Thousands of maggots are feasting on them in a rolling, ricy tide. The pair will be mostly bones in another week, when beetles will come to clean up leftover gristle.

Corpses with longer residency lie on the margins of a grass-and-gravel clearing. They have been molded by the elements into something resembling sculpture. Ribs and skulls have taken on the deep-grained umber of exotic driftwood. Chest hair and those last awkward comb-overs are surprisingly durable. So are fingernails. Teeth retain a whiteness that would please a supermodel. The compound is full of 10-carat smiles beneath empty eye sockets.

"In Tennessee in July and August," Bass informs you, "we can go from what we are right now to a complete skeleton in only two weeks."

This is the University of Tennessee's Anthropology Research Facility--better known as the Body Farm. An unmarked enclosure behind the hospital, the world's only establishment for the study of decaying corpses. More than 200 cadavers have spent time on the three-acre property since it opened almost 30 years ago.

Bass and his students have shut bodies in car trunks, submerged them in water, wrapped them in carpets and deposited them in shallow graves and deep holes. They have dressed them in various fabrics, pulled their teeth at regular intervals, measured their appeal to carrion insects. They have collected the juices, analyzed the gases and sampled the smells that bodies discharge. When the flesh is gone, they have boxed the bones for further study.

"We tried to reproduce as many of the scenarios of dead bodies as we could," Bass says.

He means the scenarios in which bodies turn up following violent death. Murder.

You might be tempted to dismiss the enterprise as one man's obsession--which is how it began--and a serious case of ghoulish PhDs run amok. Except that every time another corpse turns up, chances are that the lessons of the Body Farm are being applied.

Much of what criminal investigators know about the breakdown of the human form derives from research here, knowledge critical in determining how long a person has been dead--the starting point for identifying the victim and checking the alibi of the suspect.

The facility is also funnels talent to the nation's leading forensics labs. Bass, a legend in the field, has trained more than half of the forensic anthropologists practicing today, according to colleagues. Now they are based at the Smithsonian and consult for the FBI. Or they work in the Armed Forces Medical Examiner's Office on death investigations around the world.

Half a dozen are stationed at the federal laboratory in Hawaii responsible for identifying remains of American servicemen killed in past wars. When the feds needed someone to piece back together David Koresh's skull for identification purposes after the Branch Davidian compound burned in Waco, they summoned a team from the Body Farm. One of Bass's former students is examining mass graves in Kosovo and collecting evidence of war crimes.

Bass acquires bodies from three sources. The unclaimed dead are candidates for the Farm, to save the State of Tennessee $700 in burial fees. Those who die having expressed the desire to donate their body "to science," but without having filled out the paperwork, may be sent by their survivors. And then there are people who plan ahead, signing special forms seeking admission when the time comes.

Each new corpse gets a number. The man who shot himself is 5/99, the fifth body placed this year. The survivors of 5/99 donated his remains, Bass said. Details other than age, race, sex and circumstances of death are kept confidential.

Going back to the earliest cultures, humans have invented rituals for honoring and disposing the dead. Some favored burying, others burning, others floating away on a boat. Being left to rot in the sun was reserved for contemptible foes after big battles. So Bass has his critics. Early on, a group called Solutions to Issues of Concern to Knoxvillians picketed the Body Farm. They carried signs that said "This Makes Me SICK!"

"I thought that was pretty good," Bass says with a chuckle.

The protest blew over after the modesty fence was erected.

A few years ago, veterans groups became upset that the remains of some homeless veterans wound up on the Farm. They backed a bill in the Tennessee legislature that would have curtailed the facility. Bass called on his friends the lawmen--whose investigations benefit from the research--and beat back the attack.

Bass also has fans. He signs autographs. He appears on true-detective television shows. He is a recurring character in the crime novels of Patricia Cornwell, who coined the name Body Farm with her 1994 novel of that title. Cornwell's fictional Dr. Lyall Shade runs experiments on his Knoxville Body Farm for the heroine investigator Dr. Kay Scarpetta.

The dual reaction to Bass's research confirms something else about death. We hate it and we love it. We know it will happen to us by and by, so we fear it and try to keep it hidden. At the same time, because we know it will happen to us by and by, we can't get enough. Some of us would really like to tour the Body Farm. Breathe deep and get funky with maggots.

"I could work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, doing nothing but showing people through the Body Farm," Bass grumbles. Last year he mused aloud to a reporter that he should install a little train with a whistle to carry tourists.

Hence the razor wire.

"Not many dead bodies climb over the fences," he says. "The razor wire is to keep the live ones from climbing over to look at the dead ones."

The last two unauthorized pre-dead who sought entry were second-year law students. The razor wire did a job on them.

Then there were the den mothers. Last year they started calling to see if they could bring their Cub Scouts around for a look.

No, said Bass.

Now he is 70 years old. He will retire at the end of this month. He is ready to commend the Body Farm to the capable hands of former students. Things will be different. The old stinky methods Bass pioneered are giving way to the sterile modernity of biochemistry and computer analysis. Though hale and vigorous, he is nearing the twilight of life. He is pondering such questions as whether God exists, is there life after death, and whether he should be buried after he dies. He's thinking about checking into the Farm.

After so many decades of hands-on intimacy with death, he has nearly perfected a matter-of-fact attitude toward the subject.

"I don't see death here. I don't see mourning," he says one day at the Farm. "I see something we need to teach these investigators so they will know what to do when they get to a scene."

And yet there is his old friend, the professor of history who interviewed him before Bass got the job in 1971. The professor died a few years back. He left instructions to be placed on the Farm. The bugs did their work, and now his skeleton is boxed in a room down the hall from Bass's office.

"I'll be honest with you," Bass says. "I have not gotten up the courage to open the box and look at it yet."

From Corpse to Skeleton

It's a cold Friday morning in December 1977. A body has been found outside Nashville in a recently disturbed grave at a historic cemetery. Fearing that a murder victim may have been stuffed into an old hole dug for someone else, the investigating officer calls Bass.

Bass rummages around in the grave. He has someone lower him by the ankles to get even deeper without damaging evidence.

There are pieces of a tuxedo shirt, vest, coat, pants and a white glove still on the right hand. The remains stink, an obvious sign of relatively recent vintage. Bass cuts pink flesh from the femur, and the intestines are still identifiable.

He renders his judgment: white male, age 25 to 28, dead six to 12 months.

In a few days, evidence turns up that yields a positive identification. The deceased is one Col. William Mabry Shy, a white male who was 26 when he died.

"So far, I'm perfect," Bass will say when he recounts the case later.

And Shy was shot through the head--during the Battle of Nashville, in 1864.

"I only missed it by 112 years."

Shy's remarkable preservation stemmed from a few factors: He was one of the first people ever embalmed in Nashville. And he was interred in a cast-iron coffin that was airtight until grave robbers broke into it.

The Shy goof got Bass thinking. Here was fertile ground for research.

Only a character like Bass could have gotten away with it. With folksy charm and a PhD in charisma, he made his grisly enterprise seem plausible; then he proved it important. He had a conversation with university officials that began, "Dean, I need a place to put some bodies." The university gave him a former dump site and an office tucked into the wall of the football stadium on the Tennessee River where the UT Volunteers play.

He grew up the son of a limestone quarry superintendent in Winchester, Va. The sight, smell and touch of human decay made him throw up just once, as a 26-year-old graduate student at his first exhumation. After that, deducing aspects of life from details of death became thrilling. He gleefully claps his hands and exclaims, "It's exciting to me that you can take a pile of bones and tell who that individual is. . . . It's like a puzzle."

He's also a bit of a showman. His colleagues cringe at his morbid wisecracks, at his embrace of the term Body Farm. They prefer "the facility." Bass will tell you about the local prosecutor who used to call the place the Bass Anthropology Research Facility--BARF. It was a term of endearment. Bass helped the prosecutor put murderers in prison.

The first studies were somewhat crude. One day a bulldozer clearing a vacant lot between two occupied houses scooped up a skeleton. Bass took a look at the bones and figured out they belonged to an elderly white male who died of natural causes and had never been buried. The man just decomposed in the tall grass.

People were shocked. How could a body decay down to bones in a lot between two houses and no one smelled it?

Good question, Bass said.

He offered 10 points of extra credit to the students in his anthropology lecture class if they would come out to the Farm the next Saturday. When they got there, they found a body rotting on the ground. Bass marked off distances in 10-yard increments from the corpse.

Conclusion: "You can't smell a body more than 30 yards away."

One of the students in the department was a guy named William Rodriguez. He was interested in the side of anthropology that deals with primates, physiology and behavior. He figured he might make a career working with chimps in Africa. One winter afternoon, Rodriguez was hanging around the department and Bass got an urgent call. None of the forensics students was available, so Bass grabbed Rodriguez. "You're going with me to do a forensic case."

They spent a day and a half in some woods where skeletal remains were found. The bones had settled into the soil.

"I was so enthralled with what he could determine from looking at these remains," Rodriguez recalls.

Bass said the victim was a white male, mid-thirties, who had been shot in the back of the head execution-style at the scene about five years before. The bones told him the victim was probably poor because he had been malnourished and lacked dental care. Not only that, judging by old healed fractures on the knuckles, nose and cheekbones, he probably had been a brawler in barrooms and been whacked upside the head by a pool cue once or twice. When he was alive, he probably had a dent and scars on the side of his face.

It all turned out to be true. Bass's description helped lead to the identification of the victim and prosecution of the killers.

"It totally 360'd my career outlook," Rodriguez says. "Literally the next day I switched over to forensics as my main specialty area."

Now Rodriguez is the chief deputy medical examiner for special investigations in the Armed Forces Medical Examiner's Office. He is co-leader of a U.S. team assigned to examine remains in Kosovo.

Bass and Rodriguez both knew that Bass's dazzling bone detective work on the murder case could be complemented with a better understanding of what happens to corpses in the process of becoming skeletons. Under Bass's guidance, Rodriguez conducted the first sophisticated study on the Body Farm. He put four corpses out at different times of the year and spent hours upon hours, day and night, watching the succession of insect varieties attracted to the bodies, led by blowflies, with their familiar iridescent green and blue bodies.

Forensics investigators had known that insect activity followed predictable patterns, but this was the first time the process on a human cadaver had been elaborated. Nowadays, investigators are trained to retrieve samples of bugs found on a body. The insects' maturity is an important clue to the time of death.

More research followed. Placing bodies in pools, Bass and his students learned that water slows decomposition by as much as half. They recorded the rates of decay of bodies in automobile trunks, and buried at various depths, dressed in assorted fabrics, wrapped in different materials.

One student did chemical analyses of the soil under decaying bodies. The dirt becomes drenched in volatile fatty acids and other runoff. The work proved you didn't need the actual corpse to tell how long it had been there; the soil contained the clues.

The sum of the knowledge is now being put to use around the world.

"Now we are working with scientific evidence," Rodriguez says. "Before, it was purely guessing."

America's Changing Physique

A few times a year, Bass holds what he calls cleanup parties. Students go out to recover remains that are close to being skeletons. It's also a rehearsal for their first job handling murder victims.

One student carries a chart, checking off each bone, while the others load the remains into orange plastic bags. The bags are transported to the processing lab near the football stadium.

Very few people are professional skeleton cleaners nowadays, so no equipment industry has grown up to serve them. Bass has borrowed from the culinary sciences. A large, shiny kettle is in one corner of the lab. It was previously used to make vast quantities of stews and soups at a nursing home.

The skeletons are simmered in a solution of water and Biz laundry bleach, then scrubbed clean. For small jobs (an individual skull, for example), there is a little Hamilton Beach electric pot. A dash of Adolph's meat tenderizer is sometimes used to help remove the flesh.

"It's a Crock-Pot approach to cleaning a body," Bass says.

Once the skeletons are dry, the bones are numbered and stored in hinged cardboard boxes that measure 3 feet by 1 foot by 1 foot, roughly the size of a gift box for a large bouquet of flowers. That is the smallest size that can comfortably hold an adult skeleton.

The boxes are stacked on shelves in two rooms in the anthropology department along a corridor curved to fit the football stadium's bowl. The boxes are labeled with shorthand clues to what's inside: "Plane Crash Victim." "Shot in Head." "Burned Positive I.D." "Infants in Suitcase."

Down the curved hall in another office, Richard Jantz sits in front of his computer wearing shorts, T-shirt, socks and sandals. An expert on early inhabitants of the continent, he's fascinated by what dry white bones can tell us about how people lived. The measurements of the key bones in all the boxes have been entered into Jantz's computer. The result is a detailed record of modern American sizes and shapes. Until now, what we knew about modern American bones has been based on classic anatomical collections at the Smithsonian, Howard University and elsewhere that include subjects born before the Civil War. Everyone knows Americans have grown taller, but now the Body Farm bones are telling us more.

"The amount of skeletal change since the 19th century is more remarkable than we ever dreamed it would be," Jantz says.

The adult American femur used to be round in cross section, more robust and shorter; today its profile is a teardrop. The skull has grown narrower and higher.

Jantz speculates that the change in the leg bone is related to our increased height and decreased activity. And, possibly, our skulls are swelling upward to make room for a bigger brain, he says.

The data are stored on six computer disks, which the department copies and supplies to researchers around the country. This digital destiny is what awaits Denim Man, who before long will be boiled and boxed as skeleton No. 5/99, and may one day help solve a crime, or signal a swerve in human evolution.

Call It Recycling

Roy Crawford is one of 80 people who have reserved places on the Farm.

Crawford, 47, made the decision nine years ago after he was diagnosed with cancer. He was devastated. He didn't know how long he would live. Suicide crept into his mind as an option if the doctors ever pronounced him terminal.

In those desperate months, Crawford read news accounts about the Body Farm. He had a strong reaction to the prospect of his body being eaten by maggots in the sun: "I thought this was the answer to my dreams."

The comfort came from wresting some control from his illness, imagining a final chapter that he, not the cancer, would write. Eventually he fought off the disease, but he still looks forward to a future on the Farm, may it commence later rather than sooner.

As he explains his reasons by telephone from the family engineering company he runs, Crawford wants it made clear that he is not an unusually morbid person. He is a rock climber and a musician. His instruments are the French horn and the recorder, which he plays in a Renaissance music group. He reads a lot of science books. He likes to know what happens to things.

He had always intended to donate his organs to medicine. Giving his entire body--after usable organs are removed--is even better, in his view. He hopes one day, during his inevitable, eternal absence from life, to help police catch a murderer.

And joining the Farm's unique recycling program seems somehow beautiful.

"I'm an outdoor person," he says. "I like the idea of being set outside when I die. I always thought cemeteries were a poor use of land. . . . To me, dying and decomposing is just a part of life, like being born."

Each year, Bass holds a memorial service for the subjects of Body Farm research. A cloth is spread over a lab table, and one of the bone boxes is placed in the center. At the service last year, a university chaplain chose as his text the 37th Chapter of Ezekiel.

And He said to me, Man, can these bones live again? . . . Prophesy over these bones and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. . . . I will put breath into you and you shall live.

The service was attended by anthropologists and by the husband of a woman whose body decayed on the Farm. They had been married 39 years. Bass opened the wife's box and showed the husband her bones. The man could see the wires where her chest had been fastened after bypass surgery.

He told a BBC Radio interviewer, "It just made me feel a little bit closer to her. . . . She was a teacher when she was alive, and even in death she continued to serve as a teacher."

The Smell of Death

Bass meets his wife, Carol Lee Bass, at the Lunch Box, a friendly place to get home cooking.

Madge the waitress brings Bass's usual chicken salad and fruit cup. Bass is a well-known character around town. Just now, he and his wife are talking about the upcoming family reunion in Virginia, and how some of the relatives want him to bring his slides of bodies for a lecture. Madge's look makes it clear what she thinks of the idea. "Do you have to talk about all that?"

Carol Lee Bass is proud of her husband's work, but she hasn't visited the Farm yet. She has made it as far as the gates. "I'm not ready for the smell." While he tends to business, she sits outside in the car, knitting.

After lunch, Bass hurries over to the Farm to give a tour to a dozen Army criminal investigators.

When Bass swings open the gates, the special agents are momentarily stunned. Many have years of experience encountering bodies, but not on display like this.

The smell sneaks up on you. It is not everywhere. It exists in irregular doses, like the cold spots in a lake. It is sweet and acrid and old all at the same time. You start taking shallow breaths, but not Bass, who has a poor sense of smell. Later, hundreds of miles away from here, the smell will return to you, triggered by odors of leather, or perfume, or sweat, or ferns, or the fetid place under your wristwatch, as if death contained notes drawn from many parts of life.

With a flourish, like an auctioneer unveiling a masterpiece, Bass whips a sheet off one of the Chattanooga bodies. The torso is covered with a thick layer of frantic white rice. The sound of consumption is like the low, lazy hiss of a garden hose.

Afterward, the special agents ask Bass for autographs and to pose for a picture with them.

Guaranteeing an Afterlife

For most of his life, Bass assumed there was a God who prepared a Heaven for us after we die. Then tragedy struck. His first wife, the mother of his three sons, died of colon cancer. After three years of marriage, his second wife, who never smoked, died of lung cancer.

"They were both excellent people," Bass says. "I thought, 'I don't understand this. This is not right.' . . . That really has affected my viewpoint. I have real doubts that there is a God."

His first wife approved of his desire someday to be laid out on the Farm. His second wife vetoed it on religious grounds. After only 18 months of marriage to Carol, he hasn't broached the subject yet.

"I'd just as soon my grandchildren and great-grandchildren come visit me in a box in the anthropology department," he says. He'd be on a shelf near the bones of his friend the history professor. "Why should I stop helping students when I retire or when I die? There's material there that other people can use."

On the other hand, "I'm not too enthusiastic about all the flies. I don't like flies."

And flies have been so good to him.

Anyway, he's come up with a proposal to finesse the flies. Seal him in a container, bury him for a year, then open the container and see how he looks. It wouldn't exactly break new ground, for Bass already has seen bodies exhumed from graves dug deep enough to frustrate most bugs. But it would be sort of like Col. Shy without the embalming. And this white male really would have been dead for just a year.

"We've never done that experiment," says Bass. "Let's make my death a research project."

Of course the new Body Farmer would have to be consulted. Murray Marks, 43, a former student of Bass's and now an associate professor, will run the Farm when Bass retires.

Marks's appreciation for forensic anthropology was infinitely deepened a decade ago when he was held hostage at knifepoint in Baton Rouge while a friend was kidnapped and shot.

"I kept thinking, who's going to find what of me?" he says. "What if these guys cut my head off and throw my head over here and my body over there? What if I decompose for six weeks? I'd like somebody to be able to identify me."

Bass is pleased that one of his "children"--his metaphor for his graduate students--is taking over the job. But he has mixed feelings about departing the scene.

"I never had a midlife crisis," he says. "It's still exciting. The problem is, I'm reaching the end of my bell-shaped curve here."

Think of his interest in donating his body to the Farm as a way to extend his university tenure indefinitely.

"It'd be interesting to work on him," Marks says of the prospect of his old professor as a specimen.

But he has one small reservation: "I don't know if I'd want to see him nude."

CAPTION: "What we have here," says William M. Bass, head honcho at the Body Farm, "are just lots of bodies in various states of disrepair."

CAPTION: The skull speaks: This woman was beaten to death with a tire iron and run over by a car.

CAPTION: Black painted caskets duplicate conditions in above-ground mausoleums in the South. Cars are used to study how bodies decompose in a trunk. After decomposition, bones are cleaned and catalogued.