Saturday, May 6, 2023

Disposing of Corpses Post-SHTF


Source: The Feral Irishman

    Earlier this year I attended a funeral for a deceased relative who had died of old age after a long and fulfilling life. The corpse was hygienically handled by trained people. The body, itself, was picked up from a nursing facility by the funeral home and delivered to its facility where it went through the funeral home's preparations and refrigerated for storage until the time of the funeral. 

    Although members of the family dressed the body prior to burial, this was completely optional and the funeral home would have performed the task if desired. Because the family did not wish to hold a viewing, they were not required to have the body embalmed; but if they had, the embalming and application of makeup to the body would also have been done by the funeral home. 

    Prior to the funeral, the body was placed into a commercially manufactured casket made of steel to be lowered into a concrete burial vault at the proverbial "6 feet under" (probably a bit more). The digging of the grave was done by other professionals retained by the cemetery, undoubtedly using a backhoe. The casket was lowered into the burial vault using specialized equipment. Lowering of the casket, emplacement of the burial vault lid, and covering it all with more earth was also done by employees of the cemetery. The engraving of the headstone was yet another task contracted out to specialists.

    In short, as emotional as a death can be, families are mostly physically separated from the actual handling, preparation and burial of the body. Moreover, in our modern, civilized world, death generally comes to loved ones due to natural causes and is only rarely due to accidents or violence. Even in the event of a accident or violence, however, the handling and disposal of corpses are handled by people trained for the task and with appropriate tools. Ditto for victims of natural disasters. For instance, the armies will have burial details to collect and bury corpses.

    In fact, in most industrialized nations, personal disposal of bodies is frowned upon. Licenses may be required and there are a laws and regulations governing how corpses are handled and buried. And if the law and circumstances would have warranted an investigation into the cause or nature of the death, moving or handling of a corpse could result in being charged with a crime such as interfering with an investigation, destroying evidence, mishandling a corpse, and so on.

    But after a major disaster--particularly if rescuers are unable to reach a location quickly or are overwhelmed--or if there should be widespread economic breakdown and violence--survivors may be forced to deal with moving and disposing of dead bodies, even if professionals will ultimately be called in to exhume, examine, and re-intern the bodies. 

    Unfortunately, this seems a little discussed topic in the prepping and survivalist literature. The only survival books I've read that deal with this topic are Cody Lundin's When All Hell Breaks Loose and Don Shift's Suburban Warfare. This isn't to say that other survival or prepping books haven't covered the topic, but these are the only two of which I am aware.

    In this article, I plan on combining and summarizing the information Lundin and Shift provide, starting with dispelling some myths or misconceptions that people may have about handling corpses, and then discussing the actual steps and procedures they recommend. 

    Please note, however, that this information is being provided for entertainment purposes only. I am not a licensed medical professional or funeral worker. Handling and burial of corpses, whether or not victims of violence, are governed by laws and regulations that can vary by jurisdiction; and moving, interfering with, or mishandling of corpses may be a crime depending on your specific circumstances and jurisdiction. This article is not intended as legal or medical advice, nor should it be substituted for legal or medical advice. I am not your lawyer. Please consult an expert or a lawyer familiar with the laws and procedures for handling or burial of corpses in your jurisdiction.

Infection Risk

    Both authors emphasize that the infection risk from a dead body, in and of itself, is low because after death the body temperature declines and the body typically begins to dry out, killing most viruses and bacteria. Lundin quotes from a WHO report that stated that dead and decomposing bodies generally do not create a serious health hazard unless they are polluting sources of drinking water with fecal matter, or are infected with the plague or typhus, in which case the bodies may be home to fleas or lice that can spread those diseases. 

    Obviously there are exceptions. There are other diseases which could also spread via dead bodies, such as cholera, streptococcal and gastrointestinal infections, hepatitis B and C, and tuberculosis (TB). However, the person must have been infected prior to death to pass these on.

    But those are the exceptions. Lundin writes, for instance, that "[r]egardless of scant exceptions, evidence supports that death caused by blunt-force trauma, drowning, or other nonepidemic scenarios ... will not result in bodies that spread disease," further noting that diseases and putrification are caused by different microorganisms. And  he specifically warns about unnecessarily wasting scant resources to burn bodies; and advises avoiding mass burials because of the emotional trauma it can cause to the deceased's loved ones.

    Lundin warns that if TB is suspected, a piece of material should be placed over the mouth and the body should only be handled in open, well ventilated areas. Lundin also points out that the HIV virus can be active for up to 16 days after death.  In fact, care should be taken whenever a person is suspected to have died by a disease or illness spread through bodily fluids. For instance, Ebola outbreaks are often tied to handling of the bodies of the dead in preparation for a funeral. 

    In any event, though, a dead body will evacuate itself by releasing urine and feces as the muscles relax, so good hygiene should be practiced when handling the body. 

Decomposition and Putrefaction 

    Some key points:
  • A body will continue to bleed after death due to residual pressure in the circulatory system. Hair and nails will continue to grow for some time following death.
  • Body temperature will fall by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit per hour until the body reaches ambient temperature.
  • Because of the lack of circulation, blood will pool in the lower parts of the body (i.e., those closest to the ground) causing those areas to appear to be reddish or purple (post-mortem lividity or livor mortis). Skin will turn white (or blanch) as the blood drains away. But as the body continues to decay, the body can turn green or, even, black. 
  • Because it may take hours or days for blood to coagulate, blood may leak from wounds when the body is moved.
  • The muscles will relax upon death resulting in the bladder and rectum emptying. 
  • Rigor mortis will begin to set in 2 to 4 hours after death and be complete in 6 to 12 hours, depending on the ambient temperature (i.e. it is faster to set in and slower to release in colder temperatures). It begins to disappear after about 36 hours and disappears after about 72 hours. Rigor makes it difficult to reposition or move bodies.
  • Bloating will occur within two to six days of death depending on the amount of bacteria in the the intestines and temperature  (warmer temperatures will cause bloating faster than colder temperatures). A body can bloat to twice its normal size, and the bloating of the face can cause the eyes to protrude. The gases causing the bloating will take 5 to 12 days to release, and if the pressure is intense, it can release quite suddenly through body orifices. Fluids will begin to drain from the body during this process. Because decomposing flesh is so weakened, the gas may also cause the body to burst--especially if the body is roughly handled--and spray fluids over anyone nearby. The bloating can also cause stomach contents to be forced out through the mouth. 
  • The skin will begin to separate from the layers of tissue below and slough off under handling. As the body continues to decay, it will increasingly turn fluidic. In that case, the body will blister and fluids will leak from the entire body, not just from orifices and wounds. 
  • Bodies will begin to smell between 24 and 72 hours after death, although this is faster if there is an open wound. Thus, Shift remarks, bodies with bullet wounds may begin to smell almost immediately.
  • Depending on season and locale, a corpse may quickly become home to maggots and other insects that feed on rotting flesh.

Disposing of the Body

    While there is generally going to be little risk to handling a dead body, you will want to dispose of dead bodies as soon as possible, even if it is a temporary burial prior to final internment of the body. There are many reasons to do so but some of the most important are:
  • Dead bodies left to the elements will putrefy--quite quickly in hot weather--and the stench will be quite unpleasant, maybe even sickening.
  • The sight and presence of dead bodies will negatively impact morale.
  • As the body decays, it will attract unwanted scavengers and vermin: everything from dogs or coyotes that will eat and scatter parts of the bodies, to flies and maggots. 
  • As the body decays, it will bloat and it will release bodily fluids and fecal matter that can spread disease or contaminate water sources. In fact, you will definitely want to move fast to remove bodies from water sources. Rotting bodies can act directly as disease vectors to contaminate water because the body will be home to or promote the growth of potential pathogens. Indirectly, they may attract animals that may, in turn, contaminate water. And even if a decomposing body does not spread disease in a water source, it can impact the smell and taste of the water.
  • As the body decays, it will become more problematic to move the body as the skin can slough off when handled or body parts can separate--e.g., hands or heads can detach if they are used to hold onto or lift the corpse. This can especially be a problem if the body is in water.
Shift also points out that you may want to dispose of bodies for purposes of operational security (OPSEC) or to avoid showing "disrespect" to the dead of a raiding group. In the former case, there are many reasons for removing bodies, but the most basic is to hide your losses from potential enemies. The idea behind the latter is that if bodies are treated disrespectfully, it might prompt a further retaliatory attack; at a minimum, removing the corpses of enemy dead means one less thing to draw attention to your group or locale. On the other hand, displaying corpses of dead enemy have also historically been important psychological weapons.

First Step: Document, Document, Document.

    I am assuming that if you have time to move and bury a body, you are not in a dynamic situation that prevents you from recording at least a bare minimum of facts. Thus, before you start moving anything, you will want to document what you can because there likely will be an investigation and questions once order is restored. 

    At a minimum, you will want to document as much as possible the who (the identity of the dead person), what (cause of death), where (this includes not only where the body was located and its general condition, but also to where the body is being buried or otherwise disposed of), when (date and time of death, date discovered, date interned), why (why you are moving the body), and how (cause of death if known). Make note of general physical characteristics of the deceased as well as anything special or unique like birthmarks or the such, scars, and tattoos, and catalog his or her personal effects. You may even consider burying the body with personal effects (separately wrapped in plastic) with the body to aid in identification later.

    If possible, photograph the body at the location and condition it was found (including taking in surroundings) as well as additional photographs, if necessary, to help with identification, including a clear photograph of the face. If the body is that of a victim of violence, you will also want to include injuries to the body and evidence concerning the perpetrator(s) (e.g., graffiti made by the responsible group or person, photographs or samples of shell casings, items left behind or abandoned by the attacker(s), witness statements, and so on).

    Don't forget to get signed statements from survivors or witnesses, if any, even if the death was due to natural causes. This will be important to not only protect against changing stories, but it is possible that those survivors and witnesses may not make it through the disaster! If possible, have one or two other persons witness the signing of the statement, and make sure to get their names and addresses as well. This is probably as close as you are going to get to a notarized statement.

    Finally, if there are surviving relatives of the deceased, have them provide written and signed permission to remove and bury the body. 

Special Considerations When Dealing With The Bodies Of Attackers

    If you are dealing with dead looters or raiders, you will want to look over the body and search clothing and bags for anything of intelligence value such as maps or other documents, as well as examine any equipment or items they might have. Things to look for are commonalities between the attackers (skin color, tattoos or other body modifications, similar items or color of clothing), signs of their health or nutrition, the type and condition of their weapons (e.g., are they a rag-tag band or do they appear well-supplied and disciplined).

    Shift also suggests that if you are concerned about the identification of the bodies later being used against you (e.g., to prevent a gang from identifying their dead and linking them to your group), to sanitize the attacker's corpses as best as possible by removing any documents, personally identifiable items, and any clothing or equipment.

Protection Against Infection

    Make sure that you follow precautions against exposure to blood and bodily fluids. This means:
  • Wear disposable latex, vinyl or nitrile gloves at all times. Nitrile gloves are cheap and you should have a box or two as part of your general preps in any event. If you don't have disposable gloves, you can use rubber cleaning gloves or fashion substitutes from plastic sheeting or plastic bags.
  • Wear masks and protective eyewear, or face shields, to prevent keep blood or other body fluids from getting in your eyes or mucus membranes. If you don't have medical masks, you can use construction or hobby equipment. Although the fabric hospital masks we have all worn at sometime in the past few years do nothing to spread viruses in the air, they do work well at catching fluids and droplets.
  • Cover all cuts or abrasions with waterproof bandages or dressings.
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling bodies and avoid touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
  • Wear gowns, aprons, coveralls, and coverings over your footwear if you are doing anything that is likely to result in your being splashed with blood or other bodily fluids. If you don't have specific PPE garments, you can use ponchos, rain suits, galoshes or rubber boots, or improvise from plastic sheeting or garbage bags. Be sure to wash and thoroughly disinfect reusable garments and foot coverings afterwards. Lundin recommends soaking the garments in a 0.1% chlorine bleach solution (1:50 dilution) for 30 minutes. If disposing of the garments, make sure they are wrapped security in a plastic bag and discarded in a safe place or buried.
  • Thoroughly wash all parts of your body that comes in contact with blood or bodily fluids. You should be washing your hands afterward anyway, and Lundin also recommends dipping your hands in a chlorine disinfecting solution as well.
  • Disinfect all equipment that came into contact with the body or fluids using the 0.1% chlorine bleach solution noted above; spilled blood or fluids should be wiped up using a 1% chlorine bleach solution (1:5 dilution).
  • Use body bags when possible, but otherwise wrap bodies in multiple layers of plastic secured tightly with duck tape. This actually impairs the decomposition of the body, but since the goal is to prevent contamination and/or odor, this doesn't matter.
  • Try to clean up any blood, urine, feces, or other bodily fluids from the body. Spray down the area with a pressure wash and disinfect if possible. If not, use something like cat litter or sand to soak up as much of the material as possible and then remove. Then leave a thin layer of the litter or sand over the area until all stains have disappeared. 
Although not necessary to protect against infection, Shift recommends rubbing some Vick's VapoRub (or other similar Mentholatum product) on the upper lip to help mask odors, although full filter respirators can also be used to protect against odors.


    If there are concerns about attacks from looters or raiders, Shift recommends that for every person involved in the burial detail (i.e., those actually moving the bodies, digging the graves, etc.) you also have one armed person providing watch. Thus, for example, if you have two people on a burial detail, you should have two people charged with protecting the burial detail. Obviously, the people on these details can alternate between burial detail and security. 

Moving The Body

    As noted above, skin can slough off or parts separate as the body decomposes. Thus, Shift recommends grasping the clothing and using a two-man lift when lifting or moving a corpse, and then wrap the body as quickly as possible. Specifically, bodies should be handled using two persons at each end of the body to avoid strains or injury or putting too much strain on the corpse and causing it to rupture or come apart.

    If using plastic sheeting to wrap the body, Shift instructs putting the body in the center of the sheet and folding the ends inward. Corners should then be folded over and taped up to prevent fluids leaking. The opening should also be face up to, again, prevent fluids from leaking out. Then tape or tie the opening shut.

    If you have to transport a body any distance to a burial site, he recommends using wheeled transportation--preferably large two wheeled carts that can handle a body lengthwise and be tilted to dump the body--but anything will do. He notes that bodies should not be transported long distances by hand due to possible disintegration and psychological issues. Try to only transport bodies after they have been covered and, where possible, out of sight of others to reduce psychological issues.

    As with other equipment, the carts, wagons, trailer or truck beds, should be washed down and disinfected after use.

The Grave

    While cremation may be preferable for disposing of bodies, it takes a lot of fuel (wood or whatever) to burn a body--fuel that you may need for heating or cooking. Shift relates, for instance, that over 600 pounds of wood is required for effective cremation outside of a crematorium. Thus, the best option post-SHTF is to bury corpses. 

    If you can't immediately bury the body because the ground is frozen, the body can be left in the cold (covered of course) for preserval until the ground thaws enough to allow burial. (Historically, the bodies of those that died in winter would be stored in special structures, in their coffins, until the spring thaw). Burial should be conducted as soon as possible, however.

    Burial sites should be selected by consensus and should be isolated from development, but adaptable to use as a burial site. Fields away from the outskirts of a town or neighborhood that will not be cultivated would be ideal. Parks or sports fields can be used, but locate the graves away from playgrounds and homes. 

    Lundin states that graves should be placed at least 100 feet from any surface water sources and be at least 5 feet above the water table with a 2 foot unsaturated zone. Shift indicates that burial grounds should be located at a minimum of 150 feet from the nearest water source and a quarter mile from homes, preferably further. He specifically urges that burial grounds be located as far away as feasible to make discovery or investigation of corpses by an enemy less likely. I would think that it would make investigation easier, but it might make it less likely that the corpses would be tied to your community. For that reason, dead enemy should not be buried in the same location as members of your community.

    According to Lundin, standard graves are 8 feet long by 3 feet wide and 7 feet deep; but he also points out that the 7 feet is to account for a casket and you can probably get by with a shallower grave without a casket. Obviously, however, you should dig the grave the necessary size to accommodate the body, which means that it might be larger or smaller. Nevertheless, you want the corpse to be buried at least 3 feet below the surface and the earth tamped down over it. You should also mark the location as a grave even if you don't know the identity of the deceased.

    Particularly if the grave is to be shallow, you may want to cover the corpse with thorny brush or a layer of rocks to discourage animals from digging up the body.

    In most cases you will want to have only one or two persons to a grave to minimize trauma to kith and kin, and make it easier for the body to be exhumed and reburied after the disaster has passed. You don't owe the same consideration to raiders, so a mass grave may be acceptable in those cases.

A Funeral Service

    Both Lundin and Shift emphasize the importance of some ceremony or funeral rite for survivors--especially for family members of the deceased--in order to provide closure and keep up morale. Obviously no such accommodations need to be made for looters or raiders killed while attacking your group or neighborhood.


  1. Blue polyethylene woven tarps and duct tape would be a good inexpensive way to wrap a body to be moved and buried. Blue tarps are strong, and would not tear or leak even during rough handling.

    If you are lucky, the body will reanimate as a zombie and shuffle away, eliminating the need for disposal.


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