How to dispose of a human corpse after a disaster

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When the prepper community talks about grid-down scenarios, the topic usually centers on what to expect and how to prepare in order to survive.  But the grim reality is that not everyone will survive during or after a disaster requiring communities to face the grim reality that they’ll need to properly dispose of a human corpse.  And with public services stretched thin, the responsibility of handling corpses will likely fall on friends and family.  

In this article, we’ll cover the steps needed to handle a human corpse and the risks associated with it.

In this modern era we live in, we’re very used to services handling all sorts of unpleasant things.  When flushing your toilet, your deposit is shipped away to be processed at a facility far away from your home.  The meat you eat has been prepared at centers where animals are slaughtered and processed to ensure you have a high-quality piece of steak.  So many things happen on a daily basis that we’re far removed from and mankind’s ultimate fate is handled no differently in our society: out of sight and in a way in which we see the end result of an embalmed corpse which we can commemorate at a ceremony.

But this process has not always been handled in this fashion.  Not that long ago, the dead were handled in a different fashion.

How people used to dispose of their dead

The concept of burial or cremating the dead has actually been around for thousands of years.  The Neanderthals were believed to be the first humans that buried their dead, while the practice of burning the dead was introduced by the Greeks as early as 1000 BCE.  

But for some cultures or societies, one other form of disposal was used, and that’s the abandonment of the dead to scavengers.  The nomadic tribes of the Mongolians, for example, were known to abandon the dead and let scavengers or the elements deal with them. Though the concept of burying and cremating is documented in these early tribes, abandoning the dead is the simplest and easiest way to dispose of a human corpse. But early Mongolians weren’t the only ones who used this kind of method of disposing of the dead. 

The Indian and Iranian Zoroastrians and Tibetan Buddhists would leave their dead in areas where they’ll be eaten by vultures.  Certain areas of the Solomon Islands would place their dead on the reef to be eaten by sharks or left in canoes to decompose.  For Native Americans and some Indigenous Australians cultures, abandoning their dead in the open is just the first step in disposing of a dead body. They put it on a platform or tree and left it there for a while to decompose, then they come back to collect the bones and bury it.

There are also cultures in North and South America, Australia, China, Africa, and Tibet that used to follow the practice of mummification, where they attempted to preserve the bodies of the dead.

For early European nations, especially the Christian nations, holding a funeral and burying their dead was more common since it also showed a dead person’s status and nobility.  As for burial, the clergy and the elites were usually buried in the Church, near the altar, while the rest were buried in cemeteries.  But in cases of a serious epidemic, where numerous people were dying, large pits were dug at the cemeteries and as many dead bodies as possible were buried there to save space and dispose of the deceased as quickly as possible. Cremation wasn’t a popular choice of disposing of the dead for Christian nations in the past as some interpretations in theology viewed the body and soul as being reunited when the dead are resurrected at the Last Judgement. So the burning of the body was seen as a way of preventing the dead from resurrection and was reserved witches, heretics, and sodomites. 

The health hazard that undisposed dead bodies present

The real health risk that dead bodies pose is to people who will be handling them.  But they still also pose risks to the general population if they’re not handled properly.

  1. Risk of diarrhea – One of the main health risks that dead bodies pose is diarrhea. Dead bodies can contaminate water if they’re left near it or if they’re dumped into one. This is because dead bodies still produce fecal material and if that gets into water, it could cause diarrhea to people who will drink from the contaminated water source.
  2. Mental and emotional trauma – Dead bodies that aren’t properly handled can also cause emotional and mental risks to people, especially to families who are looking for dead loved ones.  After a disaster, one of the overwhelming desires for people, aside from finding their loved ones alive, is to at least recover the remains from the disaster to give the corpse a proper burial and send off to provide closure.  Not being able to do this can cause mental and emotional trauma to those left behind.
  3. Attracting unwanted animals and insects – another risk of decomposing dead bodies is that it can attract insects and animals that can cause further health risks like rats.  Rats carry a number of deadly diseases like leptospirosis and typhus, among others. And if rotting corpse draws in rats, the chances of humans coming into contact with these rodents are higher, thus increasing their risk of contracting the deadly diseases that rats carry.  Aside from rats, blowflies will also be common around dead bodies. Though these flies don’t bite, they can carry bacteria that can cause diseases like cholera and dysentery. 

The health risks to people handling dead bodies

There are risks in handling dead bodies, this is why it’s mostly left to professionals who have undergone the proper training and education.  But in a grid-down scenario, the task of handling and disposing of dead bodies will be left in the hands of the remaining survivors.

  1. Risk of contracting diseases – The first major risk that any person who will handle dead bodies should know is the risk of contracting diseases.
    1. Tuberculosis – Tuberculosis is one disease that people should worry about when they’re handling dead bodies. Bacillus (which is a type of bacteria) that is easily airborne and can cause this disease, especially if the bacillus enters the person’s nose or mouth while handling the dead body.
    2. Bloodborne virus – Another risk that dead bodies pose to people who are touching them are bloodborne viruses like hepatitis B and C and HIV. Corpses usually have non-intact skin or protruding bone and having direct contact with them puts a person at risk of being infected with viruses. Direct contact with the mucous membrane, bodily fluid, or blood of the deceased can also infect people with a virus.
    3. Gastrointestinal – The last disease that a person handling a corpse could contract is gastrointestinal infections (diarrhea). A dead body can leak feces and direct contact with it could cause gastrointestinal infections. Transmission of this infection can also happen through direct contact of contaminated vehicles or equipment and soiled clothes from the deceased.
  2. Risks from animals and insects devouring the dead body – We already discussed how rats can be dangerous and this is especially true for people handling corpses. Rats could bite or scratch the people handling the corpse, which could, in turn, infect them with any lethal disease that the rats are carrying. Dead bodies will also be infested with maggots and larvae that carry various diseases.  Touching them directly will require you to wash and disinfect your hands thoroughly so you and others won’t get sick.

How to properly handle a dead body

In order to properly handle corpses, you’ll need to wear certain gear, as well as take necessary precautions.

  1. Protective Gear – The basic protective gear you’ll need are disposable gloves, a water repellent gown, and a surgical mask.  You’ll also need to wear protective goggles or face shields to protect your eyes from any liquids splashing into your eyes that might occur when handling corpses.  You should also consider wearing boots or using shoe covers to protect your shoes from being damaged, getting contaminants on them that could be spread, and help to prevent the risk of your body making contact with bodily fluids or other contaminants.
    1. It’s also important to note that dead bodies are put in different categories, depending on how contagious the body is. If the body is in the highest category (meaning stringent protection is required), the added gear needed is a water-resistant gown and double gloves. With this in mind, it’s better to start with the best protection when handling corpses.
  2. Cover any wound, abrasion, or cuts – After preparing the gear to wear, the next step is for the people who are assigned to handle the dead bodies to cover any wounds, cuts, or abrasions that they may have. It’s advised to cover them with bandages or waterproof dressings.  It’s important to cover these properly as these wounds and cuts can be infected if it’s splashed with blood, feces, or bodily fluids from the corpse.
  3. Be careful of sharp objects – When handling dead bodies, it’s important to be wary of sharp objects in the body to avoid getting cut, which can cause further infection and health risks.
  4. Observe strict personal hygiene – It’s important to have strict personal hygiene if you’re part of the team that is handling dead bodies. You need to make sure that you clean yourself properly, especially the parts of your body that touched the corpses.
    1. Remember not to smoke, eat, or drink after handling a dead body. You also shouldn’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth because your hands might still have contaminants even if you’re wearing gloves.
    2. Immediately wash your hands with liquid soap and water after removing your gear. You can also use alcohol-based hand rub to disinfect your hands.
  5. Clean and disinfect equipment and gear – You need to clean and disinfect the gear, equipment, and vehicle you used to avoid cross-infection. 
    1. In cleaning the equipment and gear, wear heavy-duty rubber gloves then carefully remove any debris or soil and place them in a disposable bag.
    2. Use disinfectant in wiping and cleaning bodily fluids in the gear, vehicle, and equipment.
  6. Properly dispose of clinical waste – The last thing you need to do is to properly dispose of all clinical waste (materials that contained blood or bodily fluids or used in handling corpses) after disposing of the body.

How to properly dispose of a dead body

Let’s look at how to properly dispose of a dead body.

  1. Burying the dead – The first way to dispose of a dead body is to bury it. It is still the simplest and easiest way to dispose of a corpse. But unlike in a traditional way, there’s no need to prepare and embalm the body as this is only done to slow down the decomposition process long enough for the funeral service. In a disaster situation, there’s no need for a funeral service so the body won’t require preparation and embalming.
    1. It’s important to remember to bury dead bodies, at least 30 meters from groundwater or any water source to avoid any contaminants infecting the water.
    2. The hole should be at least a minimum of 3.5 feet below the surface.
    3. It is advisable to use body bags in burying the dead, but it is not really needed.
    4. There’s no need to disinfect the body unless the death is caused by cholera.
  2. Burning the dead – Burning the corpse is another way to dispose of dead bodies in a grid-down scenario. The process of cremating a body is usually done in a cremation chamber or machine. But without access to this equipment, you can use the traditional and ancient way of burning the dead through funeral pyre.  A funeral pyre, though, can be time-consuming because it requires a lot of wood and builds the structure where the dead will be placed.
    1. Instead of building a structure, you can just place the dead on a flat surface and cover them with materials that can easily burn to make the body burn faster.
    2. You can also add kerosene or fuel to expedite the burn so the body can be disposed of faster.
    3. It is important to note that this method of disposal can potentially attract attention due to the fire burning in the open.
  3. Burial at sea – If you live near the ocean, you can also choose to dispose of the dead bodies in the sea. This practice is actually allowed, provided certain protocols are followed. The main thing to follow is that the burial site should be at least three nautical miles from land and at least 600 feet deep for non-cremated remains. Though these protocols will likely not be followed in an SHTF scenario, there are still certain processes that are worth following.
    1. Dead bodies should be wrapped in natural fiber shroud or sailcloth and additional weights should be attached to aid in the sinking. 
    2. If a casket will be used, a metal casket with twenty 2-inch holes drilled into it is needed to make flooding faster. The casket should also have stainless steel bands, chains, or natural fiber ropes tied around it to ensure it is intact when it sinks. Additional weights can also be added to help it sink faster.
    3. Submerged corpses will swell up with gasses as they decompose.  This may result in the body floating back up to the surface.  Small puncturing of the stomach and lungs will allow decomposition gasses to release.

Hopefully, this article gave you insight into handling dead bodies. In a grid-down scenario, disposing of the dead is not the most urgent thing you need to do. But, it is still something that you and your community or group would need to address to avoid the health hazards that a decomposing dead body would pose.

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As always, stay safe out there.

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