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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Death and Burial- Part 1 (Body)

This is a hard subject to read about, but one that needs to be covered for the “prepper” community. Every one of us is going to die. This is a fact of life that will not go away just because you don't want to think about it. All of those around us are going to die as well, some before us and others after we are gone. If you're trying to get ready for bad times ahead, then you need to start thinking about how to deal with death as part of your preps.

When I look at my “tribe”, I have people with diabetes, cancer survivors, transplant recipients, pacemakers, and a mess of other issues that I know will shorten the lives of some of them. I know I will be digging graves once the medications start to run out.

There is also the question of what to do with any bodies you may run across. Think about it- you've managed to repel the horde of spiky-haired mutants that attacked your compound, now what are you going to do with all of those dead bodies?

Like all parts of a plan to prepare for bad times, you need to look at what you are preparing for. The needs of a family of four during a week-long snowstorm are going to be much different from those of an extended family (clan or tribe) of twenty trying to get through a civil war that has no end in sight. You will also need to evaluate your surroundings for resources and obstacles. If you live in hard-rock country or in a swamp you're not going to be digging graves, and if you live in the northern extremes you're not going to be digging much at all after the frost has set in. Are there large animals in your area that may be attracted to a corpse? If so you'll want to make sure that they can't get to it. The emotional shock of loosing a loved one will not be lessened by seeing their remains scattered by a bear or coyotes.

If it appears that “normal” life will resume within a week, your main concern will be how to store the deceased until you can get them to a morgue, mortuary, or coroner's office. If the weather is cold, below freezing, a body can be stored in an unheated building or vehicle until the temperature gets above freezing. If the weather is above freezing you have a limited amount of time before the body starts to decompose, temporary burial may be an option. The amount of time varies roughly with the temperature, along with the condition of the corpse and how they died. If it is warm or hot outside and the person died of a bacterial infection, the body can start to putrefy in as little as twelve hours. More on this in Part 2.

If your situation is likely to last more than several days, you're going to need to consider how to dispose of the body. Embalming is probably not going to be an option- it requires some pretty nasty chemicals and dedicated facilities - so we're going to want to look into the funeral practices of more primitive times and places. Without freezing or embalming, corpses need to be dealt with rapidly to prevent the spread of diseases and to keep predators and vermin away from where you live. The options boil down to cremation, burial, or entombment.

I don't consider cannibalism an option - the cultural taboos and medical/nutritional evidence against it are topics for a separate post. Feeding your enemies to the pigs, dogs, or local wildlife is not a good option, as "hard-core" as it may sound. Once most carnivores get a taste for a type of meat, they'll go looking for it. Have you ever tried to break a dog of the habit of killing chickens or eating eggs? Do you really want to train your pigs to eat people? Do you really want wolves, bears, cougars, or alligators hanging around looking for another meal?

Cremation: The practice of cremating the dead is only slightly newer than burial. Cremation means burning the body in a fire large and hot enough to consume all of the organic parts and leave behind only ashes and bones. Some cultures prefer cremation over burial and I've read that it is mandatory if Japan now- ashes take up a lot less space than a conventional grave, and when you live on an island long enough you'll eventually fill it with cemeteries. In a true SHTF scenario, you will want to consider the amount of fuel needed to cremate a body and decide whether or not it could be used to better effect somewhere else. Unless you live next to a natural gas well or have some other source of never-ending fuel, cremation probably won't be a viable option.

Burial: Placing the dead into the ground has been around since the Neanderthals. Common practices include washing the body, covering it in a shroud or placing it in a coffin, orienting the body with the feet to the East, and burying it six feet below the ground. The only one of these that has any “practical” meaning is the depth of burial. At six feet below ground level, the corpse is safe from scavengers and the dirt absorbs the bad-smelling gasses produced by decay. Marking the burial site is common as it allows surviving family a way to show their respect for the deceased as well as showing them where not to dig in the future. Some cultures allow burial of more than one body in a grave, others don't- mass graves are usually a sign that people are dying faster than the survivors can keep up with.

Burial at sea is a variation that is commonly used when someone dies while aboard a ship at sea. The body is normally wrapped in a shroud, weights are added to ensure that the body sinks, and the body is lowered into the sea. This option should only be used in very large bodies of water to prevent the pollution of potential drinking water supplies.

Sky burial: Some cultures have disposed of their dead by placing them on elevated platforms or on mountain tops, where vultures and other carrion-eaters would strip the flesh from the bones or natural desiccation would occur.

Entombment: Placing the body into a natural or constructed solid structure where the process of decay can occur. If you have caves near you, they can be used as catacombs- a place to inter the dead until the process of decay has reduced a body to bones (usually about a year). Mausoleums are another form of entombment, a constructed place to store the dead above ground. If constructed properly a mausoleum will actually speed up the decay process and after a suitable period of time the bones can be collected for storage in an Ossuary and the mausoleum reused. In a pinch, a rock cairn (covering the corpse with a mound of rocks) will suffice to keep large scavengers away from the body to prevent it from being disturbed as it decays. If you don't have rocks nearby, consider using a derelict car or van as a make-shift mausoleum. Drag it far enough away from your living quarters that you won't smell it and place the dead inside.


I know this is a subject that most people don't want to confront, but not having a plan is the definition of “unprepared”. Start working on your plans before they're needed in this, along with all of the other topics we'll be covering, to give yourself a better chance of getting through the rough spots in life.

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