Several people have posed the question recently of what to do with corpses, of which there will be many, post-collapse. There are views ranging from leave them where they drop hoping animals will deal with them, to funeral services conducted by …whoever, through to mass burials and cremation. There are circumstances that will most likely fit all of these solutions, but leaving a body where it is, particularly if it is in the vicinity of you and your family is in my opinion, the worst thing you could do.
Obviously if someone in your group passes over you will want to deal with them respectfully and in line with their religious beliefs. A six foot deep hole in the back garden, away from any water course is enough to satisfy the health and hygiene aspects of death. This should be carried out as soon as is practicable before breakdown and decay start to occur. If it is winter and the ground is frozen the body may have to be wrapped and stored outside until the ground is soft enough to dig.
What happens though if it is not a member of your group, and it is not one body but lots of bodies, what do you do then?
I am going to tell you what happens after death, you will see why leaving bodies where they are is not an option if you want to avoid not only disease, but an influx of animals and insects from bears down to flies.
Once death occurs degradation starts almost immediately and for bodies not taken away and dealt with by undertakers, morticians and coroners visible signs of decay can start in as little as 15 minutes after death if the conditions are warm and humid.
At the point of death the body starts to cool, within four hours the body will be at or close to the temperature of its surroundings. During this time the skin will have paled visibly and will be waxy looking. Postural lividity caused by blood pooling and coagulating in the lowest part of the body will have occurred so, someone lying face down will be discoloured, looking a purple/dark blue colour on the front of their body.
The muscles that control the bowel and the bladder will have lost their tonicity, they will be relaxed and moving the body will cause both to evacuate. Rigor Mortis, which literally translates as ‘stiffness in death’ will be complete at around the 12 hour point after death. The only way to change the position of the body once it has set in is to ‘crack’ the rigor, literally snapping the muscles to alter the position. Rigor will wear off over the next 18-24 hours but by then, if left the internal organs of the body have started to decay. Gases build up in the gut and intestines and are not passed out of the body as they were in life and this gives the corpse a swollen and bloated appearance. These gases cause the putrefication of the internal organs, turning them first to jelly and then to liquid which will escape from the body via the orifices. This foul smelling liquid will exit via the bowels, bladder, mouth,ears, nose and even the eyes.
This is an absolutely horrendous sight and the smell is something you will never, ever forget. The thought of having this play out with one body is bad, with lots of bodies it is unthinkable.
Animals and flies smell a corpse at a good distance and will come from miles around if attracted by the stench of many corpses. Dogs, cats, rats, birds and flies will all make their way to the site, to them it is a meal nothing more or less. This will of course dispose of the bodies, but you then have to deal with a plague of vermin, which carry many diseases in their own right as well as anything they may have picked up from the bodies, flies which are excellent disease carriers, as well as packs of dogs roaming around looking for their next meal. I won’t even get into the problems that a bear or two could cause. So, what do you do?
I know there are options like burial at sea if you are right on the coast and may be sky burial, letting the vultures feed if you are high in the mountains, but for all practical purposes it really comes down to two options, burial or cremation.
Unless you have access to a mechanised digger, JCB, backhoe something like that digging mass graves is going to be hugely labour intensive and is going to require a fair chunk of land, particularly if it is going to be an ongoing situation. If the cause of the deaths is illness, for example in a pandemic situation that is so bad the government is not collecting the bodies burial could be dangerous as some pathogens are perfectly able to live on in the soil for a considerable amount of time. In a situation where animals are starving there is a possibility that bodies could be dug up. It is not a viable option if the ground is frozen meaning the bodies will have to stored until the ground thaws. Once again ths will attract animals that have no problem eating frozen meat.
Open cremation is still practiced in many cultures. It is far less labour intensive and has the advantage that germs and disease are destroyed. As people across the world who have used fire to destroy evidence of crimes have found, bodies do not burn that well.
In order to cremate a body you need high heat and good airflow for a considerable amount of time. To achieve this there will ideally be some kind of platform for the bodies to rest on with the fire built underneath this, and then combustible material placed on and around the bodies. If a reusable platform can be built all the better. Piles of bricks or rubble criss-crossed with metal posts or beams, or a metal bed frame would be one way of saving precious fuel, a pyre for multiple bodies is going to take a great deal of it. Regardless of how you construct your pyre the bodies need to be well off the ground or they will not combust effectively, there has to be good airflow all around to get anywhere near complete combustion.
A variation of the Dakota fire pit, whilst more labour intensive than a simple pyre will save very considerably on the amount of fuel used, and it is re-usable, an important consideration if the cremation is likely not going to be a one off.
The pit itself should be three feet deep, at least six feet wide and eight feet long. It would be too much of an undertaking for an individual, but a group of people working together would be able to reap the benefits of using less fuel and having a reusable ‘crematorium’. Holes from the base of the pit should be dug at an angle up to the surface, bits of pipe can be put in to avoid collapse if required. There should be an air hole every 12-18 inches around the edge of the pit the bottom of the hole should have non-combustible materials spaced out around it and the fire should be built on top of this, and the bodies should be placed on top of the fire, one deep, across the length of the pit. Another layer of combustible material should be added and accelerant poured on top of this. A second layer of bodies can then be put on top with more fuel and accelerant, this time the accelerant going on first. The fire should be lit near each one of the air holes to ensure it spreads evenly and burns hot. Obviously the bigger the pit the more bodies can be disposed of in one go. Once cooled the pit an be emptied of ash and used again.
Whichever method you use stand down wind. The smell of burning flesh is not pleasant and there can be particulate matter in the air that is harmful. Bodies that are cremated move and contract, giving them what pathologists call ‘the pugilistic pose’ the legs bend at the knees and the arms come up, fists clenches as if taking up a boxing stance. This is normal, but is often accompanied by popping sounds as the muscles contract in the heat. Depending on the amount of gases built up in the bodies there is a risk that some may explode, the same with skulls that are exposed to extreme heat.
ALWAYS handle bodies whilst wearing protective gear, this may be nothing more than rubber boots, mask, gloves and safety goggles but it is important to protect yourself at all times. Disposable painters coveralls with the boots, mask, goggles and gloves would be a safer option. All abrasions, cuts and scratches should be covered before handling the dead.
Lizzie Bennett retired from her job as a senior operating department practitioner in the UK earlier this year. Her field was trauma and accident and emergency and she has served on major catastrophe teams around the UK. Lizzie publishes Underground Medic on the topic of preparedness.