This article discusses disposal of dead bad guys or large numbers of dead strangers, not disposal of “your” dead. You will obviously treat your loved ones and friends differently. The health protocols and technical aspects will also apply to the burial of loved ones.
In my discussions of less-lethal force and crowd control, I advise against “just shoot everybody” as a tactic in all but the direst of circumstances because lots of dead bodies have to be disposed of. In Iraq, oftentimes the wives and mothers of dead insurgents would come out to claim and remove their loved one’s body with help from family if Coalition forces didn’t take custody of the dead for intelligence purposes.
In a grid-down SHTF situation, no one is coming to clean up the bodies after a battle. It will be up to you. The main issues with disposing of decayed bodies are the odor, the fluids, and the ease with which bodies can be dismembered with movement.
Body disposal will be necessary because of the stink, the carnage, and the potential of disease. Another factor is psychological; its not healthy for your defenders or your uninvolved neighbors to be looking at bodies all the time. You will be motivated for comfort and health reasons to move the bodies out of the area.
History has shown us that in any domestic conflict, innocent people—civilians, women, children, the elderly—are often killed. Defenders may be faced with the unpleasant task of having to dispose of large numbers of bodies of those who were not their enemies.
- Photograph the area of any atrocities including injuries to bodies, any graffiti, evidence, etc. Attempt to identify the bodies by name, when possible. If unable to positively identify, note general physical characteristics, any marks, scars, or tattoos, describe the clothing they were wearing or any personal effects they may have had. Photographs of the face or any identifying features should be taken.
- Individual body records should include the above identifying information, cause of death, and the location of burial.
- Allow any surviving friends or relatives to participate and mourn insofar as possible.
- A ceremony of some sort may ease everyone’s emotional trauma and allow some closure. Note that enemies may exploit a funeral service for further attacks.
- Bury the bodies whenever possible out of respect for the survivors and to make later recovery post-crisis or for forensic purposes easier.
- Record and mark (when possible) the place the persons are buried. Picking a space that can be considered sacred ground may ease survivors’ psychological burdens.
The putrefaction process
When a person dies, they will continue to bleed as a function of residual pressure in the circulatory system and gravity. However, the heart is no longer pumping blood so the volume being discharged is less. Body temperature will fall about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit per hour until the body assumes the ambient temperature.
With the lack of circulation, blood will pool in the low parts of the body due to gravity causing these areas to appear reddish (post-mortem lividity or livor mortis). Skin will turn white (blanch) as the blood drains away. The areas that have blood pooling in them will be a red to purple color. Note that blood in the first hours to days has not yet coagulated and may leak from wounds upon movement.
As muscles relax upon death, the bladder and rectum will be emptied of urine and feces. It is not uncommon to find that the deceased have soiled themselves after death. This depends on what they’ve consumed recently and how long ago they last used the toilet.
Rigor mortis, the stiffening of muscles, takes place beginning about two to four hours after death and the process is complete within six to twelve hours. Limbs in rigor can be very difficult to manipulate. Rigor begins to decrease after about 36 hours and ends after about 72 hours. Note that rigor will make it difficult to move bodies.
If safe and possible, adjust the position of the body into one that is easy to move; legs straight, arms down by the sides, and lying flat. Extremities may have to be wrapped or restrained as muscle contracture could cause them to extend even if pre-positioned. Lower temperatures cause rigor to set in faster and last longer while warmer temperatures have the opposite effect.
Bloating will occur within two to six days of death. This is variable based on temperature with warmer temperatures promoting decay. Gaseous build-up is most notable in the abdomen and in the face which may cause the eyes to protrude alarmingly. The gases are not released until five to twelve days after death. Fluids will begin to drain from the body during this process and the body may rupture from the gas pressure if handled roughly.
Note that after a few days, the skin will begin to separate from the layers of tissue below and may slough off under handling. This is why clothing of the deceased should be grasped, a two-man lift used, and the body wrapped when possible. As the decay progresses, the body will increasingly turn fluidic.
Bodies subjected to a traumatic injury such as a gunshot can smell right away. The first scent will be the coppery smell of blood often followed with feces if the intestines are ruptured. People in combat or who sustain serious injuries may also defecate from pain/fear. Any artificially opened orifice will allow the purification process to accelerate and thus will begin to smell sooner. The process is variable depending on injury and temperature but can take up to 24-72 hours for a foul odor to be noticed.
If you ever wondered what a dead body smells like, imagine the putrid odor of roadkill. That’s it and often you’re smelling a relatively small animal. The odor from a dead human is far worse and probably the most offensive and distressing thing about bodies being out in the open. The scent can be incredibly overpowering and has been documented to cause major psychological trauma among survivors.
For an infection that the deceased died of or with, the threat is relatively short lived. The main source of pathogens found in dead bodies are bacterial versus viral. As bodies deteriorate, they dry out and the temperature drops, which kills off host bacteria, making transfer of that infection difficult. Viruses also have similar problems.
For certain diseases, like cholera, to be spread by the decay of a dead body, the deceased must have been infected with the disease first. Many third world diseases are (currently) very rare in the United States due to our healthcare system.
Typically, bodies are not a major risk of spreading disease unless they are contaminating water sources with feces or a particularly dangerous disease. If the person died of trauma they will likely pose little risk of contamination.
Rotting bodies in contact with a water source are a disease vector because of potential pathogens that may flourish in the decaying body (as they might with any similar growth medium). These would be introduced from the environment or from a scavenging animal that then transfers via a vector to the population. Dead bodies in drinking water can impart foul tastes or odors to the water that are not necessarily deadly.
Remember that in a grid-down situation superstition, fear, and folk beliefs will hold sway. Bodies will need to be buried to allay people’s fears of disease and to get offensive and visual and olfactory sensations away.
Be sure that any cleanup and removal is done under security overwatch. Persons dressed up in PPE and dealing with the bodies cannot effectively provide security and fight. There should be at least one defender per body handler. For example, if two people are digging and dumping the bodies, two people need to be armed and watching the surrounding area. Nothing says that the two groups can’t switch off. Anyone going outside the perimeter needs to be armed and on alert.
- PPE: N95 mask (minimum), eye protection, disposable gloves, booties or bagged shoes, and preferably disposable coveralls. Ponchos or trash bags can be used to protect the survivor and their clothes from any contamination from the body. Any clothes or reusable equipment should be thoroughly disinfected and washed.
- Vick’s VapoRub on the upper lip can help mask odors although full filter respirators should be used against odors.
- Disinfectant, deodorizers, and soap/washing.
- Trash bags for contaminated items and other things that need to be disposed of.
- Thick plastic sheeting to wrap bodies (preferably black).
- Duct tape.
- Wheeled transportation, preferably large two-wheeled carts that can be pulled or towed long enough to carry bodies lengthwise and can be titled to dump. Carts should also be easy to clean. Bodies should not be moved long distance by hand when possible due to possible disintegration and psychological issues.
- Shovels, hand tools, and wheelbarrows.
- Rocks, rubble, or other debris to place atop the grave to keep animals from digging.
Make a careful search of the battleground for any bodies that are not obvious. A person may have died behind or under cover. Their bodies may be hidden or camouflaged. Bodies may be buried under rubble, tangled in wreckage, or burned beyond recognition. Don’t wait until the body starts to stink to find it. Remove and bury the bodies as soon as it is safe and practical to do this. The less decay that has occurred the easier it will be.
Post-attack intelligence can be gathered from the bodies of the dead enemy. Search their clothing and any bags carried for anything of intelligence value, such as documents, items, or equipment carried.
Cover the bodies as soon as safe and practical before removal. This will make it easier for survivors and person living in the area. Cloth or plastic covers are for visual and hygienic purposes. No one wants to look at a dead body or get covered in the gore coming off it. They are not necessary unless the body is severely decayed or dismembered.
If using plastic sheeting as a body bag, place the body in the center of the sheet and fold the ends inward. Corners should be folded over and taped up if there is a concern about fluids leaking. The opening should face up to help retain fluids inside the plastic. Tape or tie the opening shut.
Bodies should be handled by two persons at each end to avoid lifting/strain injuries or putting too much tension on a damaged body that could result in dismemberment or rupture. When possible, transport bodies out of the view of others while covered.
The ground surrounding the body may be contaminated. In addition to blood or other bodily fluids and materials, there may be urine and feces. If possible, use high pressure water to wash away the effluents into storm drains. If not possible, remove any large chunks of tissue. If water is not available, use dry soil, sand, or kitty litter to absorb bodily fluids which you can then sweep away. Leave any puddles or stains covered in a light layer of your absorbent until they naturally disappear.
Burial is the easiest way to dispose of a body and cut down on the smell rotting flesh produces. Due to the energy expenditure when digging graves, mass graves and vertical stacking may be preferable. A deeper grave with several bodies stacked on top of one another might be the most efficient.
Bodies should be buried at least five feet down. This is to help alleviate the ground settling, makes it difficult for scavenging animals to dig down and eat the flesh, and prevents the bodies from inadvertently being uncovered due to incidental digging in the area.
Absolute minimal burial depth depends on the soil conditions. Under optimal conditions, 18” of heavy clay could be sufficient to prevent escape of odors, but three to four feet is better. More depth is always best for the above reasons. A layer of rock, rubble, or hard debris should be buried to discourage digging scavengers. This is important if the bodies are buried shallow. Barbed wire can also be used for this purpose.
In freezing conditions, bodies can be left above ground and covered with snow until the ground thaws sufficiently to bury the bodies. Bodies should be covered with cloths or tarps and the location clearly marked for when the thaw comes. Burial should happen as soon as it is feasible and before the bodies begin to decay further.
Bodies in body bags or wrapped in plastic sheeting keeps the bodies separate from the soil. If bodies are not individually wrapped, layers of sheeting can be placed above and below the bodies. Coffins are unnecessary and a waste of energy and resources.
The burial ground
Pick a location preferably through community consensus for a mass grave. Sites should be isolated from development and adaptable for the purpose. Fields not likely to be used for cultivation on the outskirts of town or in the center of undeveloped areas are excellent. If parks must be used, the center of sports fields far away from playgrounds and homes can be used.
Burial grounds should be located at a minimum of 150 feet from the nearest water source and a quarter mile from homes, preferably further. Transportation as far away as feasible from you and anyone else is the decent thing to do and makes discovery or investigation of the corpses by an enemy less likely. A burial ground right behind your housing complex might make it easy for the allies of a looting gang to surmise you killed their friends.
Because disinterment and reburial are processes few people will want to engage in, try to avoid “battlefield” burials and remove the bodies to a more permanent disposal area. Avoid dumping bodies in random places. This is an OPSEC violation and is disrespectful to others who may encounter the bodies.
Note: This article is an adaptation of passages from my non-fiction book Suburban Warfare: A cop’s guide to surviving a civil war, SHTF, or modern urban combat, available on Amazon.