Disposal of dead bodies in emergency conditions
WHO/WEDC technical notes on WASH in emergencies
Dealing with the dead is one of the most difficult aspects of a disaster response. This is not so much due to health-related risks, which tend to be negligible, but to the psychological, social and political impact of the trauma. This technical note outlines the health implications of dealing with mass fatalities and priority actions that need to be considered when planning for the collection and disposal of the dead.
Health risks from mass fatalities
Contrary to common belief, there is no medical evidence to suggest that large numbers of dead bodies, in themselves, cause disease or epidemics. Human remains originating from traumatic events (natural disasters, accidents or warfare do not represent a health hazard. The only situation where there is a health risk is when communicable disease has been the cause of the fatalities.
This technical note focuses on the priority tasks for dealing with dead bodies not caused by medical epidemics.
Much of the information given in this note is draws on Morgan et al. (2006). It is strongly recommended that, if you are likely to be involved in the disposal of dead bodies, you should consult this text first.
Beyond injury, the primary health concern for survivors of a disaster is the psychological trauma of the loss of loved ones and of witnessing death on a large scale. For this reason it is important to proceed with the collection of dead bodies as soon as possible, but it is not necessary or advisable to hurry their disposal.
Deal with the living first
In all cases, priority should be given to the living. Search and rescue should not be held up because of concerns about the dead, nor should health care resources (e.g. ambulances and hospital beds) be used to deal with them.
Protect the workforce
Body recovery often takes place spontaneously by groups from the surviving community, volunteers, and search and rescue teams. Recovery teams should wear protective equipment such as gloves and boots. They should also be encouraged to wash their hands with soap after handling dead bodies.
Recovery teams also face risks from working in dangerous environments. Try to vaccinate workers against tetanus and ensure first aid and medical treatment is available in case of injury.
The handling of large numbers of dead bodies can have a serious impact on the mental health of members of the recovery team. The effects can take a variety of forms and may occur immediately after the event or much later. Health services must be prepared for this and deal with it as and when it arises