After a disaster: Ensuring families can honour the dead

06 May 2015
After a disaster: Ensuring families can honour the dead
ICRC forensic expert Shuala Drawdy in Nepal. CC BY-NC-ND/Devendra Dhungana/ICRC

As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement's assistance to communities affected by the Nepal Earthquake, the ICRC sent forensic expert Shuala Drawdy to help with our response.

Shuala talks about the role that she and her other colleagues are playing in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, which has left thousands dead and countless more injured and homeless.

What assistance can an ICRC forensic expert provide?

Forensic experts from the ICRC can give advice and support to authorities and local experts on how forensic science can help address humanitarian challenges, such as how to deal with dead bodies.

After a disaster, the ICRC can offer guidance on gathering information about those who have died, and provide technical advice to ensure local systems can identify and properly manage dead bodies, with dignity while maintaining respect for cultural practices. 

We also provide training to emergency responders in the recovery and transport of dead bodies, and to people who have the role of identifying the dead – so that their families can be located and bodies can be returned.

What is the current situation in Nepal and what assistance is being provided by the ICRC's Forensic Services?

The situation is quite challenging. The focus has been on searching for the wounded and on rescuing those trapped under rubble.

There are thousands of unrecovered bodies in the communities that were affected by the earthquake. The extent of the aftermath is not fully known, but in the areas the ICRC has had access to we have already begun to distribute body bags and assist these communities with how they can manage their dead.

The ICRC is also working directly with local authorities, providing advice and support as needed. It is essential that unidentified bodies are not cremated, so their families can have the opportunity to carry out their own funerary rites once identification has taken place.

Who deals with dead bodies after a disaster – the ICRC or the authorities?

The responsibility of managing dead bodies lies always the authorities—they have jurisdiction and this should be respected. However, the ICRC can provide assistance to local authorities if requested and required, and has the expertise to work with and provide support to families who are seeking missing relatives.

Are there any myths or perceptions about dead bodies that you would like to dispel?

The biggest myth is that dead bodies cause epidemics. This is not true. The bodies of people who have died in a disaster do not cause epidemics, because they have normally died as a result of traumatic injury, drowning or fire.

For more information: see our FAQs on why dead bodies do not cause epidemics.