Disposal of human corpses is the practice and process of dealing with the remains of a deceased human being. Human corpses present both a sanitation and public health risk. Like most animals, when humans die, their bodies start to decompose, emitting a foul odor and attracting scavengers and decomposers. For these reasons, corpses must be disposed of properly. The problem of body disposal consists of two parts: disposal of the soft tissues, which will rapidly decompose, and of the skeleton, which will remain intact for thousands of years under certain conditions.
Several methods for disposal are practiced. In many cases, the manner of disposal is dominated by spiritual concerns and a desire to show respect for the dead, and may be highly ritualized. This event may be part of a larger funeral ritual. In other circumstances, such as war or natural disaster, practical concerns may be forefront. Many religions as well as legal jurisdictions have set rules regarding the disposal of corpses. Since the experience of death is universal to all humans, practices regarding corpse disposal are a part of every culture.
Means of disposal
The most common methods of disposal are:
Burial of the entire body in the earth, often within a coffin or casket (also referred to as inhumation)
- Permanent storage in an above-ground tomb or mausoleum (also referred to as immurement)
Cremation, which burns soft tissue and renders much of the skeleton to ash. The remains, known as "cremains" may contain larger pieces of bone which are ground in a machine to the consistency of ash. The ashes may be stored in an urn or scattered on land or water.
- Disposal by exposure
- Traditional examples include Tibetan sky burial and the Parsi Towers of Silence
- A body farm involves a similar method of disposal as an object of scientific study.
- In some traditions, for example that practiced by the Spanish royal family, the soft tissues are permitted to rot over a period of decades, after which the bones are entombed.
Burial at sea
- Dropping overboard from a ship or plane, a form of burial, often used in a military/naval context, where the corpse, suitably prepared and weighted is deposited into the sea.
- Ship burial, a form of burial at sea in which the corpse is set adrift on a boat. The Viking funeral combines this practice with cremation.
- Illegal disposal of bodies in the water
Dissolution, e.g. in acid or a solution of lye, followed by disposal as liquid
- Recently there has been much controversy over alkaline hydrolysis as a method of body disposal. Advocates claim the process is more environmentally friendly than both cremation and burial, due to CO2 emissions and embalming fluids respectively. On the other hand, many find the idea of being "poured down the drain" to be undignified.
- Donation for study donation to a medical school or similar after embalming and several years of study and dissection the body is usually eventually cremated.
- Cannibalism, ritual or otherwise
- Space burial
- In cases of war, genocide, or natural disasters including disease epidemics, large groups of people have been buried in mass graves or plague pits.
- Dismemberment, in which the body is divided and different body parts are dealt with separately; for example in the case of the Habsburg royal family as well as the display of the relics of various saints.
New methods in development include Promession, Resomation, and the mushroom death suit by Infinity Burial Project.
Means of preservation
In some cases an attempt is made to preserve some or all of a body. These methods include:
- Mummification; the most well-known examples are from ancient Egypt
- Taxidermy: A few people, such as the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, have had their dead bodies stuffed.
- Plastination: The preserved (embalmed) body is prepared by dissection or slicing and fluids are replaced with inert plastic for anatomical study by medical students or display in museums. This technique was pioneered by Gunther von Hagens of the Institute for Plastination.
Human remains of archaeological or medical interest are often kept in museums and private collections. This practice is controversial (See NAGPRA). In the cases of Native Americans in the United States, possession of remains and related objects is regulated by the NAGPRA Act of 1990.
Preparation for disposal
Different religions and cultures have various funeral rites that accompany the disposal of a body. Some require that all parts of the body are buried together. If an autopsy has occurred, removed parts of the body are sewn back into the body so that they may be buried with the rest of the corpse.
When it is not possible for a body to be disposed of promptly, it is generally stored at a morgue. Where this is not possible, such as on a battlefield, body bags are used. In the Western world, embalming of the body is a standard part of preparation. This is intended to temporarily preserve the corpse throughout the funeral process.
Many jurisdictions have enacted regulations relating to the disposal of human bodies. Although it may be entirely legal to bury a deceased family member, the law may restrict the locations in which this activity is allowed, in some cases expressly limiting burials to property controlled by specific, licensed institutions. Furthermore, in many places, failure to properly dispose of a body is a crime. In some places, it is also a crime to fail to report a death, and to fail to report the disposition of the body.
Certain conditions such as necrosis can cause parts of the body such as limbs or internal organs to die without causing the death of the individual. In such cases the body parts are usually not given a funeral. Surgical removal of dead tissue is usually necessary to prevent gangrenous infection. Surgically removed body parts are typically disposed of as medical waste, unless they need to be preserved for cultural reasons, as described above.
Conversely, donated organs or tissue may live on long after the death of an individual.
Attitudes towards stillborn fetuses have changed in recent years; in the past they were often disposed of as medical waste, but are now commonly given funerals.
In some cases, a body is disposed of in such a way as to prevent, hinder, or delay discovery of the body, to prevent identification of the body, or to prevent autopsy. In such cases, the deceased is considered a missing person as long as a body is not identified, unless death is so likely that the person is declared legally dead.
This often occurs as part of a murder or voluntary manslaughter. In other cases, an individual who did not intend to cause death may still feel guilt about a death (e.g. by involuntary manslaughter or an accident) and may attempt to prevent discovery of the body. This can exacerbate any legal consequences associated with the death.
Other motives for concealing death or the cause of death include insurance fraud or the desire to collect the pension of the deceased. An individual may commit suicide in such a way as to obscure the cause of death, allowing beneficiaries of a life insurance policy to collect on the policy.
Means of clandestine disposal
- Burial, especially in a shallow grave due to time constraints
- Cremation, which may be incomplete if performed without proper equipment
- Dumping the body in a deserted or private place, such as a freezer or body of water
- Dissolution (see above)
- Burial in cement or concrete
- Crushing, e.g. within a junked car
Dismemberment is common as a means to facilitate disposal; it also enables disposal of each piece separately.
Illegal disposal of bodies in the water
Disposal of this type happens for various reasons, including the main difference between a burial at sea and a burial on land: the difficulty in recovering the body. Sometimes this difference is desired to dispose of bodies outside of the law.
Disposal of evidence
There may be a number of reasons for this kind of crime. One common reason for this behavior is to dispose of the evidence. The body may be the victim of a homicide, as for example murder or manslaughter. In some cases, the victim may even be still alive and drown during the process. A live victim is usually restrained to reduce the likelihood of the victim freeing themselves or fighting back, and the body is often weighted to ensure the sinking of the body. The mafia is infamous for disposing of victims in oceans or lakes with their feet cast in a concrete block. Other variants tie concrete blocks or other heavy objects to the victim. The Chicago-style method involves wrapping heavy chains around the victim. In Venice, barrels filled with a human body and concrete are occasionally found in the canals. It is difficult to determine if murder victims buried in a swamp are buried in water or in earth. Often, the body is also cut up to reduce the likelihood of reappearing.
In other cases, the victim may have died from an accident, and another involved party tries to destroy evidence of the accident. There are also cases where a stillborn infant is buried to dispose of evidence of infidelity, or problems with fertility, or the shame associated with unwed parenthood in many cultures.
While a corpse properly buried at sea is unlikely to reappear, many criminals are unable to ensure the permanent disposals of a body, and evidence of the body may reappear. This is rarely as spectacular as the freshly caught shark in the Sydney Coogee Aquarium that vomited up a surgically separated human arm, leading to a murder investigation. The victim was determined to be James Smith, but the three murder suspects were acquitted.
Many criminals dispose of bodies in a river, hoping that the body is carried away. However, this method will most likely lead to a quick detection of the body, because the body gets entangled at the side of the river, or stopped at a dam, or is simply seen floating by others. A disposal in large lakes or oceans is more likely to hide the body, but a decomposing body can develop a strong positive buoyancy due to the decomposing gases being trapped underneath the skin. This may bring the body up to the surface, or at least increase the movement across the ocean floor due to wave actions. Many bodies have washed up at the shore. Bodies have also been discovered in the nets or lines of fishermen, and occasionally, bodies are also discovered by divers.
Very cold water with little oxygen may even preserve bodies, allowing for an easier identification, as for example Margaret Hogg, the Wasdale Lady in the Lake in Wast Water lake in the Wasdale area (see National Trust Properties in England). She was found after 8 years, with her body preserved like wax.
- Gary Ridgway (born 1949), the Green River Killer, disposed most of his bodies in or near the Green River
- In the Shark Arm Case James Smith's murder was discovered when a shark in the Sydney Coogee Aquarium vomited up his severed arm in 1935
- Anne Marie Fahey, scheduling secretary for then Delaware Governor Thomas Carper, was killed by prominent Delaware attorney Thomas Capano and was dumped, inside of a large "Igloo" cooler, into the Atlantic Ocean off the New Jersey coast with the help of his brother, Jerry. Only the cooler was recovered and was buried by the Fahey family after the Capano case.
- Emmett Till, his body dumped in the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi in 1955
- Margaret Hogg, the Wasdale Lady in the Lake, murdered 1976, and found 1984
- Laci Peterson, the wife of Scott Peterson, murdered 2002 and found on the shore of the San Francisco Bay.
- Shinjiro Matsumoto, Japanese businessman, his wife Chika and two children, murdered by Chinese students in 2002 and dumped into Hakata Bay in Fukuoka.
- Quang Lu a Thornhill, Ontario loan shark was found entombed in a rusty steel barrel full of concrete in Lake Ontario after police received an anonymous tip.