Let me be honest. Writing this was not pleasant. Researching the information on death and burial and reviewing what I already knew was depressing, to say the least. The topic of death is one that the living naturally try to avoid, but if any group understands that avoiding reality does not remove it from our lives, it is the peppers/survivalists. Modern management of death has removed the need to know from our current lives. A SHTF experience can quickly remove those modern death management services.
I’m a grey-headed, stiff-jointed prepper, who is at that age when loved ones and friends are leaving this world at an increasing pace. However, that will likely be the experience of all of us in a post-SHTF world. Prior to the most recent generations, caring for the dead was a common set of skills. Some of you may be as ancient as me and have personally experienced some of what is written, but if you are like me, that was long ago and not practiced recently. Regardless of your current understanding, it is my hope that after reading this article you will have the basic skills for dealing with the certain death of others around you.
Most deaths, in our current times, are handled by the death services industry. Over two and one half million of our loved ones die from old age, disease, or accidents each year. That breaks down to only two per one hundred Americans per year. Their bodies are quietly moved to a morgue or funeral home, where they can be kept cold until such time that services are convenient. Before hand, some undergo an autopsy, which is the process a pathologist undergoes in their attempt to verify or determine the cause of death. Some have body parts harvested to be used to sustain the living. Morticians embalm and clean the body, dress and groom it, and make it suitable for viewing, if that is desired. When we view the deceased, they are often so carefully prepared that they appear almost to be sleeping. Cremation or burial follow, all guided and provided by professionals. Family and friends gather for support. Often the largest task might be taking a suit of clothes to the funeral home, making decisions about details of the funeral, or preparing a dish of food to take to the surviving family.
Death rates increase during harsh times. Just look around at our nation’s population. Twenty-eight percent are medically obese, this condition shaving decades off of a normal life span. One in seven of us is diabetic. One in eight are over the age of sixty-five, many with medical conditions that require access to medications, equipment, supplies, and healthcare professionals to sustain their lives. Listen to the news during any heat wave and you will hear of elderly people found dead from the heat. These represent the most frail of the population whose very life is dependent upon modern utilities and technology. Stop the electricity and you stop the air conditioning, thus you stop someone’s life. What will be the effect of a widespread, lengthy or even permanent absence of running water, electricity, sewage treatment, and trash collection? Or what about rampant violence? People will die. It is reasonable to assume that some of those reading this article at this moment will die during such times, naturally or not, from violence or not. Their bodies will not neatly evaporate away.
It was only in the last century that mortuary services became the prominent and indispensable industry they are today. Embalming was born during the Civil War, for preserving and transporting the bodies of the fallen sons of wealthier people. Rather than have them buried at some distant battlefield, they desired the return of the soldier’s corpse. Over the next century embalmers evolved into morticians and funeral homes. A business was born, and somewhere along the way we lost the common knowledge of how to care for the dead. My grandparents had it, and if you are not quite as old as I, it is likely that your great-grandparents had such knowledge and experience, as well.
Many rural communities in their day had a “shroud woman” who was usually an older woman with experience in helping people prepare bodies for burial. She was sent for as soon as the death had occurred. Think of her as the counterpart to the midwife; she was someone who had been through the event many times and contributed her knowledge and aid to the community. Within hours of death, women of the family were engaged in the work of preparing the body for viewing and/or burial. The men dug a grave and, if possible, prepared a coffin.
In the case of localized disasters, even large number of the dead can be handled by organized teams of volunteers or responders. There remains the structure of society and government to function, perhaps less than ideally but more or less effectively, to remove and dispose of the dead. It is not that scenario we will be addressing here. There are ample resources for information as to the disposal of large number of bodies on FEMA, Red Cross, and government web sites. Rather, we will consider SHTF scenarios that temporarily or permanently disrupt the death care industry– scenarios in which we may find ourselves dealing with death up close and personal and find ourselves preparing and disposing of the bodies of our family and friends.
Let’s dispose of a big myth that bodies need to be buried to prevent epidemics of disease. This is not true. Most pathogens in a body die with it, within hours after death. Disease is rarely an issue. Humans have a natural aversion to touching or even staying in the presence of a corpse. God has so equipped nature that your own corpse will surely return to the dust from which it was formed, buried or not. So why bury them at all? First of all, it’s because a corpse looks and smells very bad in very short order. Secondly, it’s because we are human. We are made in the very image of God, and even those that do not believe in God recognize the need for dignified treatment of human remains. It is part of what we consider civilization. Can you imagine living in a society where corpses were left to decompose wherever they happened to die, being eaten by stray dogs and rats? Neither can I. Such scenes are properly left to horror movies.
How we deal with death impacts how we live as a civilized society. The U.S. Marines are well-known for the fact that they do not leave their dead behind. Every Marine understands this. A major reason is that the body of the Marine will not be left for desecration by the enemy, but it is only the retrieval of each future dead Marine that will preserve that belief and the value it has to the comfort and morale of those who are in combat. Likewise, the way that we handle the bodies of the dead in a future post-SHTF scenario will offer comfort and morale to the living or serve to worsen it and degrade what civilization remains.
To understand what we do with the dead requires that we understand what happens to a body after death. It’s an unpleasant topic but a necessary one. Decomposition begins immediately after death. The rate at which a body decomposes is affected by many factors, including the weather, for example. The higher the temperature above freezing, the quicker it progresses. Other factors include what the deceased was eating before they died– the contents in their stomach and gut– and what medications they had been taking. Decomposition has been seen to be so rapid that the body was not recognizable within a few days, while in other cases, say that of a thin, small body, it might seem to be more of a case of mummification rather than decomposition. Normal bacteria in the body during life are active in death. Everything works together to liquify and break down soft tissues of the body, until all that remains are bones. Depending on how they were buried, bones may degrade in years or thousands of years, but eventually we do as God promised in his curse—we return to dust.
Bodies go through common changes within the first hours after death. There are color changes. The highest parts of the body will turn pale as the blood in our veins and capillaries follows gravity down and pools in the lowest areas. The skin in the lowest parts will turn dark reddish-purple. The highest areas then become grayish in color. Within a few hours of death, the electrolytes in our muscle tissue will have become so imbalanced that the muscles appear to be frozen stiff. From there comes the word “stiff” that movie gangsters use to refer to the body in the trunk. The rest of us know it as rigor mortis. Some of you may have woken to find that a pet had died in the night and its body was stiff. That is rigor mortis. After a few more hours, this normally begins to go away, making the joints supple again.
Without going into too many details, over the following days very ugly things happen, causing the skin to turn black, the eyes and tongue to bulge, and fluid to leak from the mouth, nose, and ears, as the internal organs liquify. The activity of bacteria produces methane that bloats the tissues and produces that horrible smell that is unique to a dead human body. If you have ever smelled that odor, it is one that you do not forget. None of us would wish our loved ones and friends to be seen or remembered like this.
As we have noted, it is a myth that dead bodies represent a risk to the health of the living, but let’s add the one small caveat of people who die of extremely infectious diseases. There is nothing to know more than you already know for handling infected people when they are alive. Wear gloves. Rubber boots or boot covers are also helpful. A mask is optional, since a corpse does not sneeze or cough. Avoid touching body fluids or touching your own body while working with the body. Wash your hands thoroughly when finished and especially before eating. Any of us who watched the collection of bodies in Africa from the recent Ebola epidemic observed workers spraying the body and effects with an antiseptic. A strong beach and water solution is adequate. Keep in mind that while HIV and Ebola may hang around for days, what killed the person dies with the person. Is there ever a need for a HAZMAT suit? If I was collecting bodies of Ebola victims and they offered me one, you bet I’d wear it. Until more is known, why take chances? Most survivors do not have a HAZMAT suit in their bags, however, but they are likely to have access to disposable gloves, soap, and water.
Just how long do we have to work with the body? Much will depend upon the individual body and the climate. Indeed, in the colder climates of the world, where the ground freezes hard during winter, burials often do not occur until spring thaw. The same freezing weather also provides a natural storage solution during the wait. In temperate climates, things happen more quickly, but it’s not so quickly that we have to bury the body by sundown. Depending upon the corpse and weather, you may have several days. In no case is the process of decomposition so fast that you cannot take time to clean and prepare the body.
Upon death, there is the natural concern that the person is actually dead. There is no need for immediate determination when life-saving resuscitation is not a concern, as when death has been expected. If not immediately apparent, the natural changes that will occur shortly after death will serve to confirm that the person is indeed dead. Color changes occur within hours. Body temperature drops but will not be as noticeable as the changes in color and rigor mortis.
Upon death, loved ones or friends can take early actions that will help with possible viewing. It is common for humans to die with some degree of eyelid retraction. The eyes may be fully open or, more commonly, slightly open. At this point they can be gently pulled closed most or all of the way. An old custom is to place a heavy coin on each eyelid to maintain the closed position through rigor mortis. Medical tape can be used as well. If rigor mortis sets in before the lids are closed, closing them can be a difficult task. But closure is not necessary, even if aesthetically more pleasing. If the open eyes are troubling to those handling the body, the body can be respectfully covered or a cloth placed over the face. Similarly, it is good if a length of cloth, a scarf, or cord is used to keep the mouth in a closed position until rigor mortis has set in. Simply tie the cord or cloth over the top of the head with a simple knot.
In most cultures, it is the women of the group that take up the task of preparing the body for viewing or burial. The key here is to have at least three to four people, if not more. Turning a dead body for purposes of cleaning and dressing is not light work. Thus the term “dead weight”. Additionally, having a group of people assists mentally and emotionally. The presence of several people will allow for quiet discussion and sharing of the moment. Some cultures engage in reciting scripture, singing of hymns, or ritual chanting during the preparation of the body. You will sense what feels appropriate to your group.
The goals of preparation of the body are to remove soiled clothes, medical devices, bandages, and to clean the body, as in performing a sponge bath. A plastic sheet or tarp and ample towels can be placed under the body to assist with the liquids. Standing to one side of the body, the group can lift and roll the body up to allow those cleaning to reach difficult areas. There may be leakage from the anus and the bladder. This can be assisted by pressing down over the lower abdomen, helping to empty the contents of the lower bowel and the bladder. Using cotton or cloth, the anus and vagina should then be plugged closed. The penis can be placed in a condom, or gently snugged with a cord to prevent further leakage. Disposable diapers can also be placed or applied as a means of catching any fluids that might escape later. Wounds should be be bandaged, with a waterproof dressing if available, or with tape. Powders can be used to cover excessively moist tissues. The oral cavity can be cleaned with swabs and lemon water or vinegar water.
Once the body is cleansed and the orifices plugged, the team can work to remove the soiled plastic sheeting and replace it with a sturdy sheet or blanket. This will serve to make moving the body much easier. The body can then be rolled from side to side to facilitate dressing and grooming. Hair can be groomed and makeup applied, as desired. You may find it comforting to add pleasant scents or scented lotion, as well.
Moving the body, after cleaned, dressed, and groomed, is best done by many, not few. The ideal is three to four on each side if the body if it is to be lifted for sliding onto another surface. The limbs may be awkward to arrange or position if the body is stiff from rigor mortis. It is also possible to move the limbs and joints with massage and stretch. This will not damage any of the body tissues. Keep in mind that rigor mortis will subside hours later and the body can then be manipulated with ease. Generally the body is positioned as though at rest, the hands folded across the chest or abdomen. A small pillow placed under the head will enhance that appearance and bring some comfort to those later viewing the body.
It was common custom to place a body for viewing in the home of the deceased, upon a table or a bed. In ideal times, dry ice is perfect for slowing decomposition. It can be crushed and placed below the blanket or sheet the body rests on. Be sure to place something waterproof underneath to catch any condensation moisture. After the body has been allowed for viewing for whatever time period the family desires, burial can proceed. Keep in mind that there is no set time or limit for this period as the vast majority of bodies are not a hygiene risk. A period of viewing not only assists the survivors to grieve and say their goodbyes, but allows for the time needed to complete the digging of a grave and, if desired, the making of a coffin.
Let’s deal with the prospect of cremation as many of us have become accustomed to it in modern times. Cremation is not a historical treatment of bodies in Western culture. It originated in England two centuries ago, due to the concerns of physicians for the hygiene of the dead body. As we have stated, hygiene is not an issue. Nonetheless, modern crematories allow for the rapid reduction of the body to bone fragments that can be then crushed into what we have all come to consider ashes. Not only does it require a furnace, but over 1,000,000 BTUs of energy and several hours at temperatures between 1400 and 1900 degree Fahrenheit. This is not something most of us expect to have available post-SHTF. Are their options? Yes, but they’re not practical ones.
Outdoor cremations require extensive amounts of wood. Worse, they generally leave remains that are far from what a modern cremation furnace produces. They still require further disposition. The Hindu’s in India can shove the remains of the cremation, still a partial corpse, into the Ganges River, as they are accustomed to. I don’t think most of us will accept or prefer that option. We would be left with burial, which begs the question as to why we carry out a cremation to begin with. There may be religious reasons that you desire to do so. If so, be prepared to have at least 100 lbs of cured wood, and that you are emotionally prepared for the smell as well as the remains that will be left. There is also one important additional aspect to keep in mind; if the body contains a pacemaker or other battery-powered medical device, it must be removed, or it can explode as the body is burned, which would be an unsettling if not potentially dangerous event.
Sky burial is certainly an option for some. Various cultures around the world have practiced it, usually because there is not sufficient wood for cremation and because they find burial in the ground to be objectionable. The body is simply placed on the open ground in an area where animals and birds can remove the soft tissues from the bones. The bones are then cremated or moved to a storage site. For Westerners, we are not likely prepared mentally or emotionally for such a site and experience. Again, sights, smells, and horror movies comes to mind.
That leaves us with the choice of burial in the ground. Burial in the earth is common to many cultures but not all. There is evidence that the earliest humans in Europe buried their dead. There are many obvious reasons– animals, smell, and dignity. Burial was and is a way to place the body within the soil where it can be broken down with respect. Positions of the body have varied. We are accustomed to being buried face up in a supine position. Some cultures bury their loved ones in a fetal position. Warrior societies have even had the custom of burying them standing. Much of these had to do with beliefs concerning the afterlife. In a similar way, some Christians are opposed to cremation, as it might prevent the rising of the dead taught in the Bible. I have not addressed burial in a crypt, assuming that in a post SHTF scenario that will not be an available luxury, but there is nothing to say that a body could not be properly buried in a tomb cut out of the rock with a stone rolled over the opening, as was done with the body of Jesus Christ.
Johnny Horton used to sing, “When it’s springtime in Alaska, I’ll be six feet below.” If you are old enough to remember that tune, as I am, you aren’t too far from a grave, either. However, if you are buried by current standards you won’t be buried under six feet of dirt. Some state regulations, for those that have them, require a coffin or body to have only two and a half to three feet of soil once buried. If in a burial vault, only two feet are required. So where did the six feet come from? Historically, it was believed that the grave needed to be dug to six feet to prevent unpleasant things, such as animals, from disturbing the remains. In some cases the grave might go a bit deeper, but such was to accommodate two or three coffins stacked one on top of the other. There is one good reason not to dig a deep grave, and that is that they can collapse on the digger, burying him instead of the intended person.
Besides the emotional and spiritual issues involved, there are only a few considerations. Graves should be dug well away from sources of running water. They should not be dug where the water table might rise and displace the remains. Various organizations recommend specific distances from a water source. Fifty feet is considered the norm for a single grave. In hilly or mountainous terrains, digging on the low side of the water source is generally preferable. If soil varies in the area, you will find it best to dig in a area without much clay or stones. Digging in frozen areas in the winter can be done, but it is very difficult if the frozen earth goes down more than a few inches. Sandy or loose soil will present the problem of slipping back into the grave or making it unsafe to use the edges of the grave to support the body or coffin. In such cases you may need to use timber or boards to secure the first foot or so of the grave walls with a framework. If the soil is exceptionally saturated with water, you will need to consider a different location or if in a very rainy season and all the soil is saturated, you may need to wait, keeping in mind that the body can be wrapped in plastic or in a body bag, if available, or just placed in a well-fitted casket until the soil condition is dry enough.
Provided the ground is not thoroughly frozen, digging a hole is a six or more hour affair for one healthy person, assuming he has never dug a grave before. Much will depend on the soil conditions and your equipment. Flat spades are excellent for creating neat walls, but obviously a survivalist will use whatever shovel or tools he has. An old hatchet makes a good tool to smooth the sides, if that is all you have. Keep the soil excavated in one pile at the side of the grave for easy return to the grave. Lay long timbers or boarding along the top of the sides of the soil before you dig. If you are blessed to have a back hoe there is certainly nothing wrong with using it for the digging. In modern cemeteries, such equipment has replaced most of the work formerly done by grave diggers.
Measure the body or the coffin, if used, and add one foot to the width and 18 inches to the length. Add 30 inches to the height of the body or coffin. Square the walls and bottom as much as possible but certainly enough to keep the dimensions uniform. Some cultures dig a grave within a grave. Upon reaching the bottom, they dig a smaller hole, the size of the body or casket. This allows people to stand on the lower ledge to receive the body and then place the body down into the smaller hole.
If no coffin is to be used, it is helpful to wrap the body as snuggly as possible in a blanket, tarp, or similar fabric. Place ties around the body several times along its length. This will prevent it from unwrapping during the burial and also make handling it much easier. A tightly-wrapped body or a coffin can be lowered via cordage or nylon strapping. One method is to place three or four cross timbers over the grave to allow the body or casket to be supported over the grave. Three straps are placed under the body, with each end of the strap held by a strong person; the straps are then used to lower the body with the handlers working together to lower the body smoothly. This can be managed with the body to the side of the grave, but it is much more difficult as the body has to be drawn over the grave and then lowered. If you do not have the means to lower the body that way, you will have to place one end of the body in at a time. Remember, you are going to be lowering the body less than four feet. This situation is one that can be facilitated by using the larger grave previously discussed, with a smaller grave centered at the bottom, giving a ledge upon which one or more persons can receive the lowered body. Safety is an issue. Burying a loved one, only to find that you have a disabling back injury, should be avoided.
Refill the grave with the excavated soil. You will have more than you took out. This remainder should be mounded up over the grave to account for settling of soil over time. Refilling is also a lengthy task, although it’s not nearly as difficult as digging the grave. Some older resources suggest applying lime above the body before refilling. This is of no use, as it was based on the myth of a hygiene issue. Further, it will do nothing to preserve the body or delay decomposition, if that is the thought.
For some situations, mound burial is a very practical option. It’s a method employed across Asia even into modern times. A very shallow grave—just enough to level the body or casket with the ground—is dug. Soil is then mounded over the grave in the shape of a small hill. It serves as a marker and may be a better option in certain soil conditions. Keep in mind that you will want to provide at least 30 inches of soil over all portions of the body or casket. Another advantage of a mound burial is that the body will be much easier to remove, if you desire to relocate the body later.
In most states in the nation, conducting your own burial in the fashion we have described is perfectly legal. There may be permits involved and restrictions on locations of burial, but there is no law requiring your loved one to be embalmed under most circumstances, nor are you prohibited from preparing the body for burial. Despite common beliefs, the use of a mortuary service is not a legal requirement in almost all scenarios.
Caring for the bodies of our loved ones and friends is not only a practical skill set for survival preparation, but it’s a historical reclamation of cultural traditions. At this point, I hope that you feel prepared to deal with the body of the dead in a humane and dignified manner. If there are questions that remain, I would be pleased to address them to the best of my ability. In writing this, my greatest concern is that I do not leave the reader with the thought that the other events that surround death have been purposely ignored. There is simply too much to include in one article. Care of the dying in a compassionate and helpful way, funeral concerns and rituals, and issues of mourning are surely as much of our humanity as is burial. They vary widely with families, cultures, and people of different faiths. I may have wrongly assumed that most of us are more knowledgeable in those areas. If there is interest, I will be glad to write more concerning those topics, which by nature, are easier to write and read. The nature of survival topics, I realize, can seem to dehumanize a very human affair, which was not my desire. Other topics that I would be willing to write on would also include the design and building of a simple coffin. This is an area I am hoping some of the more creative survivalists can contribute to, specifically the fabrication of a coffin or casket when common wood tools are not available.