Cleaning Up After the Grim Reaper

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"Death is still a fearful, frightening happening, and the fear of death is a universal fear even if we think we have mastered it on many levels." - Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D.
We have nothing to fear but fear itself, as the saying goes. The basis of much fear is simply the unknown. As a society, we have distanced ourselves from death. Hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, and funeral homes do all the "dirty work" and cemetery's are neatly hidden behind fences and walls, trees and hedges. We pass by on a daily basis, unwilling to acknowledge what lies beyond those barriers; but the time is fast approaching when death will not hide its face any longer.

Most of us are not prepared for wholesale death. We have little to no experience with it. We owe it to ourselves and to our families to become acquainted with this "fact of life" and learn how to manage its effects as best we can. The first thing we can do is to look death in the face.

So what does death look like, anyway? Soon after death, anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours depending on various factors, the body begins to cool off. It becomes pale and internal sphincter muscles (i.e., circular muscles controlling stomach, bladder and anus) relax. This leads to the release of their contents if the body is moved. Dependent lividity sets in within about 30 minutes. This is where blood pools in the lowest parts of the body (usually the back and bottom of the person, if in a prone position) and begins to coagulate. Rigor mortis sets in and the muscles in the body begin to stiffen, the skin starts hardening, and hands and toes curl. (I know this is graphic, but think "wicked witch of the west that Dorothy's house just landed on with time lapse photography.) This peaks around 12 hours after death and disappears in another 24 hours, depending on the temperature. Decay becomes visible within 24 hours. Human intestines contain friendly bacteria that help us when we are alive but become predators after we die. The internal organs begin to collapse, the skin loses its connection with underlying tissues, and bacteria create gases that cause bloating and swelling. This is a major cause of the putrefaction (rot) that sets in. The internal organs eventually turn to liquid and when the liquid exits through the orifices (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, exit points of the bowel and bladder), it is called "purge." It's ugly and smelly. The last organs to liquefy are the uterus and prostate. They can last as long as 12 months. This is how a coroner can determine the sex of a corpse dead less than 12 months.

It takes a corpse 12-20 years to return to dust depending on whether the corpse is an adult or child, what the grave temperature is, whether the body was fat (fat takes longer to break down), if and how it was embalmed, etc. In Scotland, where graves are reused, a grave is considered "ripe" until it is at least 20 years old; meaning if you open it before 20 years, you may be in for a very unpleasant surprise. (Due to the rocky terrain, graves in Scotland have to be reused.) So a corpse does not disappear quickly.

So why not just leave it where it lies? If a corpse is left out in the open, wild animals and insects will feast on it. And if the body is diseased, disease will spread quickly to humans. If you wonder why, just imagine flies crawling in and all over a dead body and the purge oozing from the orifices, and then crawling all over your dinner. That is why dead bodies must be disposed of quickly.
And flies are not the only lovers of dead meat. It has been observed that man's "best friend" will devour him when he dies. One man died at home and his dog tore him apart in less than an hour. Firemen used to allow their mascots to come along with them on runs until the fire trucks started following ambulances. The firemen had to stop allowing their dogs to come along on runs because the dogs went straight for the dead meat. Definitely a public relations situation not to mention a health hazard.

Okay, so you've got a dead body in your vicinity. What are you going to do? Assuming the body is in the area you are inhabiting and you do not live near the ocean, you have two options, both of which require a lot of hard work: (1) you can bury it, or (2) you can incinerate it. But the one thing you cannot do is to ignore it.

(1) Burying requires digging a hole six feet deep (and five feet wide and seven feet long, depending on the size of the corpse. You can either bury the body in a shroud or bury it in a pine box (links below). Either way, the corpse will decompose and bacteria could find its way into the water table, which is why current laws require a concrete liner. However, in emergency situations chances are concrete liners will not be available. That is why option 2 may be the better option, unless fire conditions exist (which is more likely given the current worldwide drought situation).

(2) Cremation/Incineration (a/k/a "the funeral pyre") is both an ancient and modern practice for the disposition of dead bodies. For the pyre, stack up lots of wood. Then put the body on top of the wood and pour flammable liquid such as oil, motor oil, kerosene, heating oil, or charcoal on the body and the wood. Then ignite the fire. It is best to keep the fire burning as hot as possible. Do not use gasoline. This will destroy harmful germs quickly and won't contaminate the groundwater. Don't breathe the fumes, the smell of a burning human body is not only sickening, but could make you sick. Make sure the wind will carry the smoke away from your home (or camp). For detailed instructions on how to build a funeral pyre, see below. You can also use a furnace or incinerator if you have one available.

If you happen to be near the ocean, feeding a corpse to the fish would be the easiest way to dispose of a corpse. However, if you are physically unable to do that or any of the above, the best thing to do is to wrap the corpse in plastic sheeting and move it as far away from your location as you can, preferably downwind and not near any body of water. Putting rocks over it (without burying it in the ground) would keep smaller animals from desecrating the remains and the plastic would keep the flies from crawling all over it. One thing to remember with any of these methods, except for burial at sea, is that you are leaving visible signs that someone is nearby. If this will be a security issue, then you must devise a plan to dispose of remains in a way that will be hidden from intruders.

If you are in a position to have a funeral, don't think about embalming the body. It is a complicated process and requires special training, material and equipment. The only purpose of embalming is to delay the putrefaction process so that the funeral can take place 3-5 days after death. In an emergency situation, this will not be possible. Any funeral would have to be done quickly followed immediately by disposition of the body.

Landfills are not a viable solution for the disposal of dead bodies either because not only of the presence of rats and smoke, but paper and plastic film dispersed by the winds, all of which could carry disease.

Composting (animal remains) is also a non-viable option. Flies, mosquitoes, rats, wildlife, and other vectors of disease transmission would be attracted to the compost pile and after a hearty lunch would spread disease. Large bones and hides will not compost easily, thus defeating the composting process.

As mentioned above, improper disposition of human (and animal) remains constitute a potential for ground and surface water contamination. Groundwater is contained in a geological layer called an aquifer. Aquifers are composed of permeable or porous geological material (materials that can be penetrated by liquids or gases) located at greater depths and, though somewhat protected, can still be contaminated when they are tapped for use or are close to a source of heavy contamination for a long time. And that, of course, leads to serious health concerns.

When dealing with dead bodies, always wear a facemask, clothing barrier, gloves and goggles. Depending on the state of decay, gasses could be a problem and you need to be prepared if something were to explode and spew in your face. Decontaminate yourself thoroughly after handling a dead body, as well as your equipment and clothing.

Every home should have a "Last Aid" kit containing the following items:
1. For burials:
a. A pick mattock;
b. A round and square-bladed shovel (one of each);
c. Pre-made pine boxes that are easily screwed together and can be lain flat as a kit under the bed, or kept in the closet in a cardboard shipping (original) container. Needs only a few screwdrivers, and about 2 hours to assemble. No power tools needed. You could also make a coffin or two and use them as coffee tables or bookshelves or storage until they are needed (links below);
d. Shroud material, or coffin lining material;
e. A grave site picked out in the backyard or a place in the city park or the local graveyard. Those on farms or ranches can utilize the "Back 40" for the family cemetery;
f. If there will be a viewing, put some glue on the lips of the deceased, otherwise the mouth can come open and scare people. There should be no viewing if the person died of an infectious disease. If death was caused by an accident and there is disfigurement, bandages could be placed or gauze placed to conceal the damage. Children should not be excluded from the grieving process and should not be lied to that "mommy is asleep" or "daddy is on a long trip." They can always tell something isn't right and will find out eventually anyway.
g. Several strong ropes for lowering the coffin into the grave site.
h. A marker of some type, if desired.
2. For incineration/funeral pyres:
a. Flammable liquids (as described above);
b. Wood;
c. Fire (matches, BBQ lighters, etc.).
3. For situations that are not
TEOTWAWKI scenarios wherein the government remains intact (such as might occur in a bird flu pandemic), the following will help the authorities with identification:
a. A complete set of identification and papers should be kept with the body; and
b. All medicines the deceased was taking, placed in a Ziploc bag along with an envelope containing the papers that describe the medicines and put with the body (this could help with further identification as well as an autopsy).
4. As a person nears death, several changes of bedding and blankets should be neatly folded, laundered and ready for changing. When a person is at the point of passing away, the bowel and bladder functions naturally release the sphincter muscles and discharge will follow.
a. Remember, the same bed will likely be reused, so it is best to encase the mattress in a protective cover. Burn the plastic cover after the person dies and disinfect the mattress.
b. Soiled laundry should not be re-used if it can't be cleaned with bleach. If the deceased person died from an infectious disease, soiled laundry should be burned. Always take standard precautions (gloves, goggles, clothing barrier) when handling infected materials.
5. Bodies should be disposed of within 24 hours, if at all possible. Sooner, if death was caused by a contagious disease or the outside temperature is hot.
6. If it is winter or you are in a cold climate, a body can stay frozen, but needs to be disposed of before it thaws.
7. Get some books on grieving, how to conduct a funeral, etc. and get educated so when death comes you will be prepared to deal with it mentally and emotionally. With that taken care of, you will be better equipped to assist all affected by death.

Unstable times are upon us. Things like funerals may become a thing of the past in order to just survive. The most important thing to focus on is preparing yourself mentally and emotionally in advance for the prospect of death, including perhaps your own or your loved ones. Education and preparation are vital so that you will be able to continue functioning in a survival situation.

JWR Adds: Laws on burial on private property vary widely. Be sure to consult your state and local laws. In the event of a disaster situation you may end up burying a loved one ad hoc, and have to catch up on death certificate paperwork after order is restored. Some digital photographs and sworn and notarized statements may suffice to prevent the indignity of a subsequent exhumation. In many ways, do-it-yourself burial is a lot easier to explain to public officials than cremation. Also keep in mind that that it takes a tremendous amount of fuel to fully cremate a human body. This is not an issue for regions with plentiful firewood, but it could be a limiting factor in other regions.