After any crisis, natural disasters in particular, we will undoubtedly come out of our shelters and begin our recovery. It is in our nature, as human beings and as American citizens, we are born survivors.
Unfortunately in the aftermath of a crisis many of us will be forced to come face to face with something that few have ever had the misfortune of dealing with.
I’m referring of course to dead bodies. What do we do with them, what are our risks when coming in contact with them and how to we dispose of them.
It is an uncomfortable topic, but bear with me, it is something that you may soon have to deal with yourself.
The importance of coping with the sight of and knowing how to dispose of a dead body can be highlighted by the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
In mid February 2010, the Haitian government reported the death toll to have reached 230,000.However, an investigation by Radio Netherlands has questioned the official death toll, reporting an estimate of 92,000 deaths as being a more realistic figure.On the first anniversary of the earthquake, 12 January 2011, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said the death toll from the quake was more than 316,000, raising the figures from previous estimates. All of these are “guesstimates” and it may never truly be known how many were lost.
But that amount of corpses on a small island posed a huge risk to the health and safety of the survivors.
And even though you may think that this is in a place far and away from the U.S., we are just as susceptible to these types of disaster…
So if you were in a situation like this, how would you react?
There are quite a few things to consider.
What to do when coming in contact with a dead body:
Body recovery is the first step in managing dead bodies and is usually chaotic and disorganized.
Many different people or groups are involved in body recovery. Communication and coordination with them is often difficult.
Body recovery only lasts a few days or weeks, but may be prolonged following earthquakes or very large disasters.
The aim of body recovery
Rapid retrieval is a priority because it aids identification and reduces the psychological burden on survivors.
Recovery of bodies should not interrupt other interventions aimed at helping survivors.
Body recovery is often done spontaneously by a large number of individuals, including:
Surviving community members.
Volunteers (e.g., National Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies).
Search and rescue teams.
Military, police or civil defense personnel.
Coordination of these groups is needed to encourage the use of procedures and
health and safety precautions recommended in this manual.
Methods and procedures for recovery
Bodies should be placed in body bags. If these are unavailable, use plastic sheets, shrouds, bed sheets, or other locally available material.
Body parts (e.g., limbs) should be treated as individual bodies. Recovery teams should not attempt to match the body parts at the disaster scene.
Body recovery teams work most effectively in two groups: one to take bodies to a nearby collection point and a second to take them to identification or storage areas.
Noting the place and date where the body was found helps identification (see Annex 1, Dead Bodies Form).
Personal belongings, jewelry, and documents should not be separated from the corresponding remains during recovery, but only during the identification phase
Stretchers, body bags, and flatbed trucks or tractor-trailers can be used to transport bodies. Ambulances should not be used for this purpose as they are best used to help the living.
Health and safety when recovering a body
Body recovery teams should wear protective equipment (heavy-duty gloves and boots) and wash their hands with soap and water after handling dead bodies
Recovery teams often work among debris or collapsed buildings. First aid and medical treatment should be available in case of injury.
Tetanus may be a particular problem in non-vaccinated workers. Local medical teams should be on the alert for tetanus prone injuries.
What do you do with the bodies once they are recovered?
Method of disposal/Long-term storage
Burial is the most practical method as it preserves evidence for future forensic investigation, if required.
Cremation of unidentified bodes should be avoided for several reasons:
Cremation will destroy evidence for any future identification.
Large amounts of fuel are needed (usually wood).
Achieving complete incineration is difficult, often resulting in partially incinerated remains that have to be buried.
It is logistically difficult to arrange for the cremation of a large number of dead bodies.
Location of burial sites
Careful thought must be given to the location of any burial site.
Soil conditions, highest water table level, and available space must be considered.
The site should be acceptable to communities living near the burial site.
The site should be close enough for the affected community to visit.
The burial site should be clearly marked and surrounded by a buffer zone that is at least 10m wide to allow planting of deep-rooted vegetation and to separate the site from inhabited areas.
Distance from water sources
Burial sites should be at least 200m away from water sources such as streams, lakes, springs, waterfalls, beaches, and the shoreline.
Suggested burial distance from drinking water wells are provided in the following table. Distances may have to be increased based on local topography and soil conditions:
If possible, human remains should be buried in clearly marked, individual graves.
For very large disasters, communal graves may be unavoidable.
Prevailing religious practices may indicate preference for the orientation of the bodies (i.e., heads facing east, or toward Mecca, etc.).
Communal graves should consist of a trench holding a single row of bodies each placed parallel to the other, 0.4m apart.
Each body must be buried with its unique reference number on a waterproof label.
This number must be clearly marked at ground level and mapped for future reference.
Although there are no standard recommendations for grave depth, it is suggested that:
- Graves should be between 1.5m and 3m deep.
- Graves with fewer than five people should allow for at least 1.2m (1.5m if the burials are in sand) between the bottom of the grave and the water table, or any level to which ground water rises.
- For communal graves there should be at least 2m between the bottom of the grave and water table, or any level to which groundwater rises.
- These distances may have to be increased depending on soil conditions.
There is another very important thing to consider…
If you are in a situation where “normalcy” may return in a short time, you will have to deal with things in a very different matter than an TEOTWAKI situation.
You will need to take steps to insure that you if the lights do come back on, you are not mistaken as a criminal for disposing of a body.
Check out this article from Tim K over on survival blog to learn the steps you may need to take in order to protect yourself from possible legal ramifications:
During a break-down of society you may happen upon a dead body. In a without-rule-of-law situation such would not be unusual. This article will give you a rough outline of what to look for when you examine a dead body. The dead body may be near your camp and you may need to get rid of it pronto. There are several reasons why you might need to closely scrutinize a corpse and document what you see.
You may need to protect yourself from the outbreak of disease. You may need to protect yourself from later accusations of murder once the system rebounds. You may need to know whether a killer is on the loose somewhere near your camp. You may need to know if this is a body which can be safely buried and preserved, or whether the body needs to be burned in order to stop the spread of disease.
If you have a camera available, be sure to take photographs. If you have the means to write, by all means take notes. Put on disposable surgical gloves if available. Use a breath mask if available. Use common sense not to infect yourself. Put on old clothes or strip to the bare essentials if necessary. Obtain soap and bleach and water to clean yourself before you chance touching anything contaminated.
Each death scene is unique, so you must use your intuition. The steps you take may be the only chance this victim has for future justice. Loved ones of the diseased person, if they can, may later thank you for the information you retrieve. You may find evidence that exonerates an innocent person. You may find answers that determine whether your group should break camp and leave the area.
As you write your report it is important to both jot down your general feelings, and to specifically note certain important items. Note the location where the death occurred, because it may be important later for law enforcement purposes regarding jurisdiction. Different state or local authorities get involved in investigations depending on the location where the body was found. Make note of anything that seems unexplained or suspicious, or that may turn the death scene into a crime scene. State in your report whether or not you think the death was accidental.
Note the date and time, and make a record of any identification paperwork you may find, such as a drivers license or an identification card, because they may later be lost. Look for tattoos or identifying marks on the body. Do not overlook the obvious, such as cell phone numbers which must be written down before the battery gives out.
Try to determine the cause of death. Make certain that the person has not just passed out and is still breathing. Mark off the area where the body is located and do not let others contaminate it. Look for any loose hairs or skin under the person’s fingernails that might reveal they defended themselves or have been in a fight. Do not jump to conclusions as to what happened, but rather look at things with an open mind. Your job at this point is to record facts and details, not to come to a firm conclusion of how the person died.
Dealing with dead bodies is not comfortable, and for some folks it is downright traumatizing. But death is the one thing in life that everyone has in common, and the better prepared we are to deal with it the easier it will be for all of us after a crisis.
Much of the information above was pulled directly from information released by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
They have a ton of knowledge available on their site so be sure to check it out.