In A Nutshell
Whenever there is a large disaster, one of the first things authorities will often wish to do is dispose of dead bodies for fear of a disease outbreak. Officials in many countries have rushed to burn or bury bodies to prevent an epidemic. Yet dead bodies don’t cause disease outbreaks. The World Health Organization states that it is better to wait and dispose of bodies normally via local custom and that mass burial or cremation should never be carried out. It has a detrimental impact on the mental health of survivors, and there is no real benefit. Disease in disaster areas is often caused by poor sanitation among the living.
The Whole Bushel
When an oil pipeline exploded in Nigeria in 2006, health officials began fumigating the bodies of the deceased. A spokesman said, “We are worried about the tragic health implications of allowing human parts to decay and cause disease in the place.” The idea that dead bodies cause disease is a popular one, and it’s easy to see why: Decomposing bodies smell, and people associate decomposition with bacteria. Yet the risk to public health from a large number of bodies is described by the World Health Organization as “negligible.” A rush to dispose of them can do much more harm than good. There has never been a single epidemic traced to dead bodies following a disaster. Following an earthquake in India in 2001, bodies were cremated en masse. This wasted effort also had the unfortunate side effect of using up the local wood supply, leaving survivors without enough fuel for heating.
There’s also the fact that personnel resources serve better elsewhere. A team of people gathering bodies is a team that is not building shelters or rescuing survivors. The WHO’s guidelines state that gathering bodies should be the last priority after rescue and restoring vital infrastructure.
Apart from directing resources away from where they’d be better used, there is a direct negative impact on the surviving population. Not being able to find the bodies of loved ones or dispose of them in line with local customs makes it harder for people to recover from their loss. Bodies should be stored as appropriate until such time as proper funeral rites can be carried out in order to reduce psychological distress as much as possible. Mass graves can also cause legal problems, like issues over the right to recover remains.
There are no reports of any infections from contact with dead bodies. There are, however, reports of injury caused by the handling of bodies and moving of rubble to dispose of bodies. Waiting for the right facilities to be able to move bodies safely is significantly less dangerous than removing bodies as rapidly as possible. Unfortunately, the belief that the dead pose a danger is deeply ingrained within the public consciousness and the media, so unacceptable practices are likely to continue.