During a break-down of society you may happen upon a dead body. In a without-rule-of-law situation such would not be unusual. This article will give you a rough outline of what to look for when you examine a dead body. The dead body may be near your camp and you may need to get rid of it pronto. There are several reasons why you might need to closely scrutinize a corpse and document what you see.
You may need to protect yourself from the outbreak of disease. You may need to protect yourself from later accusations of murder once the system rebounds. You may need to know whether a killer is on the loose somewhere near your camp. You may need to know if this is a body which can be safely buried and preserved, or whether the body needs to be burned in order to stop the spread of disease.
If you have a camera available, be sure to take photographs. If you have the means to write, by all means take notes. Put on disposable surgical gloves if available. Use a breath mask if available. Use common sense not to infect yourself. Put on old clothes or strip to the bare essentials if necessary. Obtain soap and bleach and water to clean yourself before you chance touching anything contaminated.
Each death scene is unique, so you must use your intuition. The steps you take may be the only chance this victim has for future justice. Loved ones of the diseased person, if they can, may later thank you for the information you retrieve. You may find evidence that exonerates an innocent person. You may find answers that determine whether your group should break camp and leave the area.
As you write your report it is important to both jot down your general feelings, and to specifically note certain important items. Note the location where the death occurred, because it may be important later for law enforcement purposes regarding jurisdiction. Different state or local authorities get involved in investigations depending on the location where the body was found. Make note of anything that seems unexplained or suspicious, or that may turn the death scene into a crime scene. State in your report whether or not you think the death was accidental.
Note the date and time, and make a record of any identification paperwork you may find, such as a drivers license or an identification card, because they may later be lost. Look for tattoos or identifying marks on the body. Do not overlook the obvious, such as cell phone numbers which must be written down before the battery gives out.
Try to determine the cause of death. Make certain that the person has not just passed out and is still breathing. Mark off the area where the body is located and do not let others contaminate it. Look for any loose hairs or skin under the person’s fingernails that might reveal they defended themselves or have been in a fight. Do not jump to conclusions as to what happened, but rather look at things with an open mind. Your job at this point is to record facts and details, not to come to a firm conclusion of how the person died.
Notice how the dead person is dressed, and record any anomalies. Figure out whether you think the body has been moved. Note whether the body is stiff and rigor mortis has set in. If the body is contorted or looks like it fell in an awkward position, that might mean the person died suddenly. An apparently painful look on the person’s face does not necessarily mean they died in pain.
Note any blood or vomit. Vomit can be strong enough to cause acid burns on the face or the skin. If the body has been dead for several hours, gravity will make the blood drain to the lower parts of the body, so look for tell-tale signs of discoloration. Note whether the eyes are open or shut, and whether the eyes have clouded over. These details may be important to later determine the time of death. Note any odor, discharge, or discoloration.
Take a photograph or make a drawing showing the position of the body before you move it. Only then should the body be positioned face up for examination. Begin without removing the clothing, rather tug and stretch the clothing to take an overview of the various parts of the body. Later an autopsy might be done, but at this point the purpose is to see if there are any general signs pointing to the cause of death.
Note any signs of good or bad hygiene, nearby liquor bottles, hypodermic needle marks, and torn or disheveled clothing. Swelling of the body may be due to retained water. Purple condition of the upper body often points to sudden stoppage of the heart. Record the condition of the hair and teeth. Abnormalities in the eyes such as different sized pupils should be recorded, as should puffiness of the eyes. Blue lips may mean lack of oxygen. Note any blood coming out of the eyes or ears or mouth, and anything else that seems out of the ordinary.
If you push on the skin and it dents instead of springing back, that is a sign of dehydration. Note and record the location of any bruises. Yellow skin points to liver failure. Pale skin may indicate loss of blood. Look for scrapes and lesions on the skin. Skin condition indicates many different things, so anything you find may be important to an expert later.
If there are any people around who know what happened, ask them questions and write down their answers. See if there are any medicine bottles nearby, and ask if anyone knows about any medical documents. Write down anything that indicates this was a natural death, as well as anything that indicates it was an accident, a crime, or foul play. Ask if the dead person complained of chest pain or other pains in the previous few days. Find out if the person over-exerted, for example by hiking much further than normal.
Write down relevant things like snowy or rainy weather, finding the body outdoors, finding the body in or near water, ropes or chains or weapons nearby, signs of a scuffle, etc. If there is an injury try to figure out if it was made by a blunt object such as a baseball bat or a sharp object such as a carpenter’s saw. Look and feel for broken bones, which may or may not poke out through the skin. Look for scrapes and burns, and signs of suicide such as multiple cut marks on wrists.
Lacerations are blunt force injuries which are often confused with cuts. If there is a gunshot wound, look and see if there is also an exit wound where the bullet came out. The types and causes of wounds are so vast that it is important to take photographs or write down descriptions for later reference. Remember that the body will deteriorate, so chances are you will be the only person available to document these facts.
Decide whether you think rule of law soon be reinstated. It may be days, weeks or months before authorities can be summoned. If this is the case, then it is important to take steps now that will help identify the body later. This may include taking a DNA sample with a swab to the inner cheek, taking fingerprints with any ink or dye you can find, taking a blood sample, and taking a hair sample. Do not overlook other things such as keeping cigarette butts, keeping car keys, drawing facial pictures, etc.
Beyond that, look for signs of infection which occurred before death as opposed to deterioration which occurred after death. Old healed scars may be signs of previous surgery, and must be differentiated from recent wounds, but both are important to record. Other cuts or injuries may be indicative of earlier resuscitation attempts by medical personnel.
When rule of law is gone you and your associates may have to decide what to do all by yourselves. For health purposes you cannot afford to let dead bodies deteriorate near your camp or water source. You may have to pick up camp and move on. Or you may need to bleach or burn clothing or other items to be sure to get rid of infection.
Even if you have a fortress supplied with all the amenities, it will do you no good in the long term if there is infectious disease from a rotting body nearby. You may have to make a decision about whether to burn or bury a dead body, or whether to leave an infected area. Timing is key, and it may be better to make the decision sooner rather than later. In your situation take all the known factors into consideration, obtain the advice of others, and then act decisively. The decision will be totally up to you.