How do you get rid of a dead body after a catastrophe

It’s the fourth month of the epidemic. The news from your shortwave radio announces that the death toll around the world has reached one billion people. You, your family, some neighbors, and close friends have escaped the worst of it by bugging out to a compound of remote cabins deep in the woods. Besides the 28 of you, you haven’t seen a soul since you left the city. Two weeks ago, your neighbor’s teenage son went missing but turned up three days later with symptoms of the epidemic. It spread quickly through his family before they could be isolated. By the next week, they were dead, along with six others. The remaining survivors don’t seem to be infected, but with death comes bacteria, infection, disease. There are 11 bodies slowly decomposing in one of the cabins that need to be dealt with. It’s time to bring out the dead. But how ?

What to expect

Being exposed to human beings who have died of unnatural causes is not a normal part of the human experience. People with access to hospitals and funeral homes have become unaccustomed to the tasks of handling dead bodies. In a survival situation in which death has occurred, you might have to touch the remains of a human, move them, and perhaps hear the brittle sounds of rigor mortis or of built-up gases escaping. These are not normal situations, and it will take some mental fortification on your part to overcome. Death isn’t pleasant. It will never be pleasant, and you’ll have to prepare yourself for it.

In this situation (and many like it), the bodies you will encounter will most likely be damaged in horrific ways. There will be fluids, smells, sounds, and sights that will live with you for a long time. The discovery, removal and burial of these bodies will not be a tidy job, especially if you lack a few of the basic materials, such as gloves, body bags, tarps, etc. Although it might be difficult to restrain your empathy for a once-living person now lying dead before you—especially if he or she was a loved one—there is an important task at hand that must be dealt with quickly and properly. Survival is messy. It is best to get it over with before it gets even messier.

Organization

You are about to undertake an unpleasant activity. For a variety of mental and physical reasons, this will be difficult. Preparation is key. The better prepared you are for this, the quicker it will get done and the easier it will be. Ideally, you will have particulate masks, latex gloves, and body bags (or large garbage bags) to deal with the remains. This is why these things should be packed in your emergency bags.

If available, have a camera to document the situation, a pen and paper to make notes and to record names, and boxes or envelopes to store personal belongings. You’ll need to make a plan with the remaining survivors. Graves will need to be dug, personal items collected, names and information recorded. Bodies carried. You can’t do it alone. Delegate responsibility to keep as many people busy as possible and their minds off what is actually happening.

Recovery

There is a huge psychological burden on the survivors whenever dead bodies are left in view. Survivor’s guilt plays a huge role in a post-catastrophe situation, so removing the bodies as quickly as possible should be your number-one goal after medical aid has been provided to the injured and the safety of the rest has been ensured. Organize search-and-rescue teams if need be: one team to locate the bodies and another to transport them to the identification/burial site.

Ask questions of those who survived: Who is missing? What are their names? Where were they last seen? What were they wearing? Try to make an accurate list of potential victims and where they might be. Masks, work gloves, heavy boots, latex gloves, and tools might be needed to locate the bodies. Protect yourself from touching the bodies, and wash any exposed skin if you do. You might also come across pieces of bodies that will need to be dealt with, and you shouldn’t spend time trying to match up the parts with the owners. When you find a body, it is best to place it in a body bag or wrap it in a tarp or sheet.

This mentally distances yourself from the physical act of moving a dead body, especially if you are already traumatized by the event that killed the person to begin with. Additionally, a body bag keeps all the personal effects in one place. Use gloves and avoid touching the dead body. If you have to, make sure to wash your hands well afterward. Make note of the location and time that the body was found. If possible, take pictures for the next step: identification.

Identification

It is important to keep accurate records of the bodies you have recovered. Hopefully, the emergency situation will be resolved soon, and when it does, loved ones and the government will want to know the circumstances of the burial. There are legal ramifications involved (taxes, inheritance, insurance). Additionally, the bodies will need to be interred and reburied properly in an official cemetery. The sooner you are able to identify the bodies, the quicker they can be buried (or sent to a cold storage facility). 

  1. Reference number: Start by assigning a unique identifying number to each body and to each found body part. The numbers should be sequential and should not repeat. Treat body parts like individual bodies and give them a unique number, because they can be used to identify a person if the whole body cannot be found.
  2. Label: The number should be written on waterproof paper or sealed in a small plastic bag and either attached to the body or kept in its container (body bag, tarp, etc.). Make note of the number as it associates to a body, and then include any information you have about where it was found and who it might be.
  3. Photographs: If possible, take a series of good-quality photographs of the bodies. Include in all pictures the identifying number associated with each body. The list of photographs for each body should include the following: a full-length body shot, the whole face (if the face is dirty or bloody, do your best to clean it first), any obvious distinguishing features, all clothing, shoes, and personal effects. Are there any tattoos or scars? Take a picture of these, as well.
  4. Record: Gather the body’s personal effects—watches, wallets, purses, jewelry—and place them in an envelope or a box clearly marked with the body’s unique identifying number. Make note of the body’s gender, race, facial features, age range, and marks on the skin (tattoos, etc.). Ideally, it would be good if a copy of this information were kept with the body, but, if not, it is very important to preserve this list for the authorities and next of kin.
  5. Storage: The personal effects should remain with the bodies or stored in a safe and organized manner if the bodies are to be buried immediately. Cold storage of the body immediately after it is discovered will slow the rate of decomposition, thereby preserving the body for future identification and handling by emergency professionals. Do not use dry ice or regular ice, because both are impractical for long-term storage.

Disposal and burial

Within a short amount of time (12 hours to a day, depending on the climate), a body will begin to decompose. After two days, facial recognition begins to be difficult. The smell will be overpowering, and gasses might begin to build up inside the body, which might cause them to burst. If rescue or a remedy to your survival scenario isn’t imminent, you’ll have to dispose of the bodies soon.

Keeping a body cold in normal situations is nearly impossible, especially in an emergency in which electricity is nonexistent, so the next best thing is to dig temporary burial sites. The temperature underground is considerably cooler than at the surface, so the bodies will be better preserved there (and out of sight from other survivors) for future examination or investigation. In selecting a burial site, it should be close to the incident but at least 600 feet from any source of drinking water.

Take into consideration the local water table level, the type of soil you’ll have to dig in, and the number of graves you will be digging. For fewer than five or six bodies, dig separate raves, but for more than six, it is easier to dig a trench grave.

Regardless of which, the grave should be at least five feet deep, and there should be 1.5 feet between the bodies. Lay them in one layer only (don’t stack), and clearly mark not only each body, but also the entire gravesite at ground level. If in an area that is teaming with wildlife, it is a good idea to cover the disturbed ground with rocks to keep animals from digging up the bodies.

What about cremation?

Avoid cremating a body, if possible. It takes a tremendous amount of heat to break down a human body to its core elements (much less multiple bodies), and you’ll usually end up with a partially incinerated body that you’ll eventually have to bury anyway. Plus, cremation will destroy evidence that might be needed for future identification.

The future

When your tribulation has ended, and after the choppers lift you to safety, contact the person in charge and hand him the list of bodies you buried, the pictures you might have taken, and any/all information related to what you had done. You’ll be weary, traumatized, and perhaps emotionally compromised, so the sooner you pass along this information, the sooner you can lament the lost, recount your ordeal, and get busy rebuilding your own life.

Ways of mentally coping with dead bodies

» Being exposed to dead bodies will provoke thoughts and feelings you might not have had before. You might experience sorrow, regret, repulsion, guilt, disgust, anger, and futility. These are normal responses to an abnormal situation and should be expected. In fact, it would be surprising if you didn’t experience at least one or more of these emotions. Particularly stressing—especially after the trauma of surviving a tragic ordeal—is coming into contact with the bodies of people who have died under horrible circumstances.

In some situations, the bodies you are recovering may be distorted and mutilated, and it is likely you will come across mere parts of bodies. You might be overcome with feelings of innate empathy; so much so that it might hamper your ability to persevere. Witnessing these scenes will invoke an unnatural horror in most people, but surprisingly, most of us can quickly form a tough mental barrier that will protect us from the emotional trauma.

  1. Prepare yourself: Tell yourself that you will see some disturbing things. The sights, smells, and sounds will stay with you for a long time. Try to focus on the fact that a body is not a person; it can no longer feel suffering or pain. Place value in your actions: You are doing a good thing. You are helping the next of kin know their loved ones received a respectful burial, full of as much dignity as possible. You being there will provide loved ones with facts about their death and burial, so there is no lifelong, lingering doubt about their fate. Most importantly, you are providing a healthier environment (mentally and physically) for those who are still living
  2. Limit your exposure: Use objects to block the view of the body. Covers, bags, tarps, blankets—anything that will keep you from seeing the dead body—will help you disassociate yourself with what you have to do. If those aren’t available, gloves, a mask, and safety goggles or glasses should insulate your senses. Think of it as a wax model or a mannequin or that you’re moving something innocuous, such as luggage. If you need to, mask the odor with disinfectants or air fresheners, but don’t use perfumes or lotions (they don’t work, and you’ll forever associate that smell with a dead body).
  3. Consider the still-living: Take frequent breaks away from the body recovery area. Eat and drink well. Wash your exposed skin frequently, and try to maintain good mental health. Talk through your issues with others. Be aware of signs of distress in your fellow survivors. Offer support and encouragement. Believe it or not, gallows humor is a perfectly acceptable way to cope with exposure to dead bodies. Mind your tact, however, and don’t make your humor personal, gross, or disrespectful of the bodies.
  4. Post-Traumatic Stress: After the burial task is completed, you will feel a variety of emotions; most specifically, that there was nothing you could do to prevent their death or that you weren’t able to give each burial the “funeral” it deserved. These are normal feelings, and they might surface years later and at random times. Do not withdraw inside yourself, thinking those feelings will go away or that you are alone in experiencing them. Seek out someone to talk to about your feelings, especially other survivors

Infectious Disease Risk

From an uninformed person’s point of view, death and disease go hand in hand: The moment the spirit leaves a body, the body itself somehow becomes infectious, and merely touching it will spread this disease. Perhaps that is a defense mechanism, but those who died as a result of natural disasters do not suddenly carry diseases. This is because victims of natural disasters die from trauma, such as drowning or fire. However, according to the United States Department of Health, “All dead bodies are potentially infectious” and should be treated accordingly. For example, there is a small risk from tuberculosis, hepatitis B and C, HIV and diarrheal diseases. However, the infectious agents responsible for these diseases do not last more than two days in a dead body (except for HIV, which may survive up to six). The Department of Health continues, “Most organisms in the dead body are unlikely to infect healthy persons; some infectious agents may be transmitted when persons are in contact with blood, body fluids or tissues of a dead body of a person with infectious diseases.” The Department of Health classifies dead bodies into three categories.

  • Category 1 is for those who have died of trauma and accidents/emergencies and who lack any known disease.
  • Category 2 is for those with moderate diseases, such as HIV, hepatitis C, SARS, avian flu, MERS, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
  • Category 3 is reserved for bodies with highly infectious diseases, such as anthrax, rabies, viral hemorrhagic fevers, and the plague.

Equipment needed for each category will vary and builds on the previous one. Category 1: gloves, eye protection, face shield; Category 2: Add a water-resistant gown/plastic apron and a surgical mask; Category 3: double gloves and shoe covers. When dealing with dead bodies, it is always smart not to eat or drink in their presence; do not touch your eyes or mouth, and keep any and all wounds covered with waterproof bandages. Wash exposed skin frequently and thoroughly after handling a dead body.

Story by Ryan Lee Price

Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the November 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.