Unseating the Myths Surrounding the Management of Cadavers

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Family and friends demand the chance to identify the victims of the 1985 Mexican earthquake, expressing opposition to common graves.
In the aftermath of a major natural disaster, authorities must prioritize many urgent tasks, including: (1) rescuing the survivors and providing the care they need, (2) restoring or maintaining basic services and (3) managing a potentially large number of cadavers. The latter deserves special attention. The most pressing issue is preserving the identity of those who have lost their lives. Under no circumstances are burials in common graves or cremations justified or warranted.

Many myths survive to this day regarding the health hazards posed by a large number of cadavers at the scene of a disaster. Dead bodies are seen as highly contagious, a source of epidemics that can raise the death toll. Often such convictions have led the public to demand that authorities rush to bury or cremate victims, even before the dead could be identified, and frequently in disregard of the customs and beliefs of loved ones left behind.
The history of large-scale disasters is full of examples of this kind. Soon after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, the fear of infection led to mass cremations. After an earthquake struck another country in the Region, authorities and local residents demanded that common graves be dug, without first identifying the intended occupants. And yet no scientific evidence to date has suggested that the bodies of victims of disaster increase the risk of epidemic breakouts. In fact, the cadavers of the victims pose less risk of contagion than an infected living person.

When health arguments have been proven groundless, others—equally spurious—can take their place. Advocates of common graves, for instance, often argue that there is just not enough space to bury a very large number of fatalities. This is not necessarily the case. Technical standards exist for mass burials. They call for digging plots that allow half a meter for the corpse and another half meter between bodies. Since bodies can be buried one atop the other, up to five deep, and the location of each can be registered on a grid, this provides a viable alternative to burying unidentified victims in common graves.

Another common misconception is that quickly disposing of cadavers—either through burial or cremation—creates a sense of peace and tranquility. Actually, survivors and victims’ families are relieved when the bodies of loved ones are recovered and identified. To not do so is to leave the door open to false hopes. In disasters which were the result of mud or landslides and produced a high number of fatalities, many bodies were buried under tons of mud and rocks and could not be recovered. The odds that anyone directly in the path of those landslides could have lived yet remain unaccounted for days after the disaster, were extremely slim. Still, many survivors refused to believe that their loved ones were dead; this belief was cruelly reinforced when rumors circulated that a lost relative or friend had been spotted in another part of the country. In contrast, when a loved one’s body was found and identified, it brought a sense of closure.

Another myth purports that in the aftermath of a major catastrophe, it is impossible to identify the large number of corpses. But a high death toll does not have to impede the proper identification of the victims. In general, the tools and technology exist to identify the majority, if not all the victims. Following the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, only 47 cadavers remained unidentified among the nearly 2,700 fatalities.

From a legal point of view, the government’s chief responsibility is to do all it can to recover and identify the bodies. As noted in article 27 of the Inter-American Convention of Human Rights, emergency situations do not justify suspending people’s fundamental rights. The full identification of disaster victims is important in many ways. It is the only way for the authorities to ensure that identity fraud does not take place. More significantly, however, it is the only way to put an effective end to the anguish that torments relatives and friends. The process of identifying cadavers is key to ensuring the welfare of the surviving population, and its consequences are not only psychological and social but also legal, cultural, and even economic.

Once identification has been completed, the body should be handed over to the nearest relative as quickly as possible—and they should decide on the proper funeral rites, according to their customs. While not mandatory, government assistance at this point would no doubt be welcome, as it was in the case of the Mesa Redonda fire in 2001, where the government of Peru covered the cost of funeral services and burial of the victims.

It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that under no circumstances should mass cremation or burial in common graves take place in the wake of a natural disaster. That is the message of a soon-to-be-released manual on the proper management of large numbers of cadavers in disaster situations. PAHO/WHO and a select group of experts from the hemisphere are working on this manual—which will be out in early 2004—to debunk the myths and misconceptions that hinder the proper handling, identification and disposal of the bodies. It also stands by the rights of the victims’ relatives, opposing any sort of anonymous burial in common graves or cremation. It targets national and local authorities and covers topics such as preparedness; the correct handling, identification and disposal of bodies; health considerations; and legal, sociocultural and psychological aspects.

Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief

525 23rd Street, N.W. - Washington, D.C. 20037, U.S.A.
202.974.3399 - Fax 202.775.4578 - disaster@paho.org - www.paho.org/disasters