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Handling bodies after disasters: guidelines for first responders

11-04-2006 News Release 06/30

Geneva (ICRC) – Dignified and proper management of the dead in disasters is fundamental to helping families establish the fate of their relatives and mourn their dead.

To help people called on to handle bodies in such emergencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) today announced the publication of a manual containing basic guidance intended to ensure that no information is lost and that the dead are treated with respect.

This field manual is the first ever to provide step-by-step guidance to non-specialists on how to recover and identify people killed in disasters while duly considering the needs and rights of survivors. It is the result of a joint effort between the ICRC, with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

 Management of Dead Bodies after Disasters: A Field Manual for First Responders    is intended for use by those first on the scene following a disaster when no specialists are at hand; it aims to avert mass burials and cremations, which prevent proper identification of victims.

" In many places around the world, when disaster strikes, those who are first on the scene to recover and manage the dead often require simple and practical guidance, so as to make sure their actions will enable families to know the fate of their missing relatives and to mourn their dead, " says Dr Morris Tidball-Binz, forensic coordinator at the ICRC and co-editor of the book. " Also, if the guidelines presented in this manual are followed, the work of forensic specialists to help identify the dead will be made easier. "

The manual also dispels the widely hel d misconception that dead bodies pose a serious health threat in the aftermath of disasters.

“After most natural disasters, there is a fear that dead bodies will cause epidemics,” says Oliver Morgan, an honorary research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and one of the book’s three co-editors. “This belief is wrong – most infectious organisms do not survive beyond 48 hours in a dead body, and it is the surviving population that is more likely to spread disease. But authorities often feel political pressure to resort to unnecessary measures such as hasty mass burials.”

Such practices can add to the mental suffering of victims’ families and can lead to legal and other long-term difficulties by preventing proper identification of bodies.

“The way victims are treated has a profound and long-lasting effect on the mental health of survivors and communities,” says PAHO Director Mirta Roses in the book’s foreword . “In addition, correct identification of the dead has legal significance for inheritance and insurance that can impact on families and relatives for many years after a disaster.”

Where no experts are at hand, the management of the dead usually falls to local organizations and community members, especially during the emergency phase of a disaster response. To support them in this, the manual contains simple and practical recommendations on how to accomplish key tasks.

It provides practical information and guidance on the actual health risks posed by dead bodies, how to recover and store bodies, methods of identification, long-term storage and disposal, public information and the role of the media, and support to families and relatives of the dead. Among central points emphasized in the manual are:

  • People from all religions and cultures have an overwhelming desire to know the fate of their loved ones and to identify and mourn their dead. Careful, ethical management of dead bodies is hence a critical component of disaster response.
  • Dead bodies pose a negligible threat to public health, since most victims die from injury, drowning or fire. Responders who handle dead bodies should wear gloves and practice good basic hygiene. Wearing face-masks is not necessary for infection control purposes but may help workers feel better. Bodies present virtually no risk of causing epidemic diseases.
  • Sooner is better for victim identification. The early work of non-specialists will have a major impact on the success of forensic specialists when they arrive. First responders should collect basic information about the dead and take photographs before storing bodies for later forensic identification. The simplest forms of identification are the visual identification of bodies or photographs of people who have just died.
  • Bodies should be stored at low temperatures, either in refrigerated containers or buried temporarily in organized graves. In hot climates, decomposition will be too advanced to allow visual recognition of the face after 12 to 48 hours.
  • Accurate, timely, and updated information helps reduce stress on survivors, defuse rumours and dispel misconceptions. The news media are very important channels of communication and they should be proactively involved to inform the public.

The book also provides practical annexes, including a Dead Body Identification Form, a Missing Persons Form, and a chart of sequential numbers for unique referencing of bodies.

For further information please call:
  Ian Piper, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 25 90 or +41 79 251 93 18
  The book is available for download from the ICRC website at
  (available in English now, followed by Spanish soon)