Disposing of a Dead Body: The Beginner's Guide - Part 1

Disposing of a dead body can be difficult for a variety of reasons but MyMedic is here to help! 

I served almost 10 years in the Army on active-duty. 6 of those years were in a Special Operations unit where I pulled more than a few DART missions, or: Downed Aircraft Recovery Team (DART). I doubt anyone reading this has been on a DART so I'll fill you in: helicopter crashes, the crew doesn't survive (most of the time), and you clean it all up in order to keep technology and the remains of American Soldiers' out of the enemy's hands while in hostile territory.

Although I doubt you'll find yourself in that same position it's important to know how to properly handle a human corpse in order to prevent the following in an emergency:

  • Disease
  • Infection 
  • Sanitation and public health risk
  • Looking like the new guy during a crisis


Infections, Dead Bodies and Good Things To Know.

  • At the time of death, victims are not likely to be sick with epidemic-causing infections (i.e., plague, cholera, typhoid, and anthrax).
  • Few victims will have chronic blood infections (hepatitis or HIV), tuberculosis, or diarrheal disease.
  • Most infectious organisms do not survive beyond 48 hours in a dead body. An exception is HIV, which has been found six days postmortem. 
  • There is the potential risk of drinking water contamination due to fecal material released from dead bodies.
  • Dead bodies do not cause epidemics after natural disasters.

Risk to Body Handlers.

Individuals handling a corpse have a small risk through contact with blood and feces (bodies often leak feces after death) from the following:

  1. Hepatitis B and C
  2. HIV
  3. Tuberculosis
  4. Diarrheal Disease

Safety Precautions For Body Handlers... That's You.

  • Basic protective gear will protect you: gloves, boots, long sleeve shirt and pants.
  • Wash hands with soap and water after handling bodies and before eating. Avoid wiping face or mouth with hands.
  • Wash and disinfect all equipment, clothes, and vehicles used for transportation of bodies.
  • The recovery of bodies from confined, unventilated spaces should be approached with caution. After several days of decomposition, potentially hazardous toxic gases can build-up. Time should be allowed for fresh air to ventilate confined spaces. Wear a face mask in these circumstances.

What You Need To Know As A Beginner.

1. Do dead bodies cause epidemics?

Dead bodies from natural disasters do not cause epidemics. This is because victims of natural disasters die from trauma, drowning or fire. They do not have epidemic causing diseases such as cholera, typhoid, malaria, or plague when they die.

2. What are the health risks for the public?

The risk to the public is negligible. They do not touch or handle dead bodies. However, there is a small risk of diarrhea from drinking water contaminated by fecal material from dead bodies. Routine disinfection of drinking water is sufficient to prevent water-borne illness.

3. Can dead bodies contaminate water?

Potentially, yes. Dead bodies often leak feces, which may contaminate rivers or other water sources, causing diarrheal illness. However, people will generally avoid drinking water from any source they think has had dead bodies in it.

4. Is spraying bodies with disinfectant or lime powder useful?

No, it has no effect. It does not hasten decomposition or provide any protection.

5. Local officials and journalists say there is a risk of disease from dead bodies. Are they correct?

Yes and No. The risk of disease from dead bodies after death is minimal, almost none. Better safe than sorry!

6. Is there a risk for those handling dead bodies?

For people handling dead bodies there is a small risk from tuberculosis, hepatitis B and C, HIV, and diarrheal diseases. However, the infectious agents responsible for these diseases do not last more than two days in a dead body or HIV, which may survive up to six days. 

7. Should workers wear a mask?

The smell from decaying bodies is unpleasant, but it is not a health risk in well-ventilated areas, and wearing a mask is not required for health reasons. However, workers may feel better psychologically if they are using masks. 

We hope this helps you the next time you find yourself disposing of a body.

- Never Die -



Management of Dead Bodies after Disasters: A Field Manual for First Responders https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/icrc-002-0880.pdf


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