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Management of Dead Bodies
in Disaster Situations

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2005-1

Review of:

Management of dead bodies in disaster situations

by : Pan American Health Organisation
and World Health Organisation.(2004)
Washington DC.
ISBN: 92 75 12529 5
ordered through http://publications.paho.org
(Order code: OP 164)

Reviewed by: Emeritus Professor A.J.W. Taylor
School of Psychology
Victoria University of Wellington
New Zealand
Email: tony.taylor@vuw.ac.nz

This book, the fifth in series of World Health Organisation disaster manuals and guidelines, makes a useful addition to the armamentarium of post-disaster working material that has appeared in recent years. Although its prime focus is on the identification of the dead and the treatment of bodies after natural disasters, it mentions a few that have arisen from aviation accidents, fires, and ‘forced disappearances’ of political dissidents. In the process it exposes the myths that invariably arise to justify the hasty mass burial or cremation of corpses. In true WHO style it echoes the interactive theme of the mental, physical, and social wellbeing of the relatives, the emergency personnel, and the communities in which disasters occur.

In successive chapters experienced professionals deal with the generalities and specifics of mortuary work, grieving and loss, socio/cultural issues, and legal matters, provides essential references, and a glossary of terms. They set out the essential procedures and practicalities to be followed in established mortuaries in major cities and makeshift field centres elsewhere, and admit that of necessity none will be adequate to meet the demands of the moment. Despite the exigencies, they recommend that if of short-term necessity mass burials are to be utilised, individual plots should be provided in a ‘chain of recovery’ that respect the dead and allow for the exhumation of remains for delivery to family members. They make clear that the humanitarian care and treatment of the dead has an important effect on the recovery of every community after any disaster. But having said that, they might have included social scientists in the long list of disaster experts they nominate, to say nothing of the clergy for the important work they acknowledge in marking the transition between life and death for the deceased and the opposite for the bereaved.

The book summarises the stressful responses that disasters sometimes cause, that on occasion includes suicide, and it details the factual information and the honest presentation to be adopted to minimise such adverse effects - mentioning the changing style of ‘ethical and sensitive reporting’ for the news media, rather than the typical ‘newsworthy, emphasizing the unknown and extraordinary and even manipulating certain morbid interests of the public’. The argument is buttressed throughout with interesting historical tidbits and descriptive highlights of body-handling that have occurred across the world after major natural disasters – with the notable exception of those in Asia and SouthEast Asia, as well as at the World Trade Centre in New York, or even on the many 19th and 20th century battle-fronts at home and abroad.

On the editorial side, while the authoritative exposure of myths is to be applauded, the constant repetition of the fear of disease from rotting corpses (unless they are encountered in a known region for endemic disease or are liable to contaminate fresh water supplies) needs editorial attention. It would be sufficient were the topic left to the chapter on health considerations, with acknowledgements elsewhere in the text. The definition given of criminology also needs attention, because the subject covers the wide field relating to the causation of crime rather than to the narrow field of assessing forensic evidence as suggested. The additional skill of embalmers in restoring the facial features for purposes of identification as well as preservation might also have been mentioned.

But such minor criticisms aside, there is no doubt that the book is a valuable resource for administrators, clinicians, emergency personnel, politicians, and for workers in such non-government groups as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and numerous aid agencies that are active in post-disaster situations. Certainly the succinct two-page summary of recommendations deserves to be widely promulgated as an aide-memoir in field notebooks.

Thanks to the financial support of British, Canadian, European, North American, and Swedish developmental agencies, the book is available in English and Spanish. But to reach a wider audience it deserves to appear in other languages, with relevant extensions to cover local cultural and religious practices. I understand that it was online within a few weeks of the December 26, 2004 tsunami that caused such destruction around the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, and I am sure that it would have been an invaluable aid there for anyone involved with the identification of the thousands of victims and the return of them to families for burial.


Emeritus Professor A.J.W. Taylor © 2005. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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Last changed June 9, 2005
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