Following natural disasters, mismanagement of the dead has consequences for the psychological well-being of survivors. However, no technical guidelines currently exist for managing mass fatalities following large natural disasters. Existing methods of mass fatality management are not directly transferable as they are designed for transport accidents and acts of terrorism. Furthermore, no information is currently available about post-disaster management of the dead following previous large natural disasters.
Methods and Findings
After the tsunami disaster on 26 December 2004, we conducted three descriptive case studies to systematically document how the dead were managed in Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. We considered the following parameters: body recovery and storage, identification, disposal of human remains, and health risks from dead bodies. We used participant observations as members of post-tsunami response teams, conducted semi-structured interviews with key informants, and collected information from published and unpublished documents.
Refrigeration for preserving human remains was not available soon enough after the disaster, necessitating the use of other methods such as dry ice or temporary burial. No country had sufficient forensic capacity to identify thousands of victims. Rapid decomposition made visual identification almost impossible after 24–48 h. In Thailand, most forensic identification was made using dental and fingerprint data. Few victims were identified from DNA. Lack of national or local mass fatality plans further limited the quality and timeliness of response, a problem which was exacerbated by the absence of practical field guidelines or an international agency providing technical support.
Emergency response should not add to the distress of affected communities by inappropriately disposing of the victims. The rights of survivors to see their dead treated with dignity and respect requires practical guidelines and technical support. Mass fatality management following natural disasters needs to be informed by further field research and supported by a network of regional and international forensic institutes and agencies.
Case studies were conducted to systematically document how the bodies of those killed in the tsunami were managed in Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. Many lessons can be learned, though more research is needed.
Some 226,408 people died in the tsunami that hit countries across South Asia on 26 December 2004. As well as providing assistance to the living, a crucially important part of the disaster relief effort was the recovery, identification, and disposal of the dead. However, there is very little consensus about the best way to handle and identify large numbers of bodies. Although natural disasters that kill many people occur frequently, most guidelines for the management of large numbers of dead bodies have come out of the experience gained from transport accidents and from terrorist incidents, and these guidelines are not directly relevant; for example, natural disasters often cause many more deaths than transport accidents or terrorist attacks. It is important for survivors that the bodies of the dead are handled with respect and that the dead are identified so that survivors know what has happened to missing relatives. However, at the same time many people are afraid of what the effect of many dead bodies might be on the living; one belief is that dead bodies are a source of disease. Such a belief can lead to the inappropriately rapid burial of bodies before identification has been done.
Why Was This Study Done?
The tsunami of 2004 provided an opportunity to study four different aspects of how the dead were handled in a number of different countries: how the bodies were recovered, how the bodies were identified, how the bodies were disposed of, and what, if any, were the health effects of the large number of bodies on survivors. The authors wanted to then use the results to make recommendations for use in future natural disasters.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The authors interviewed in person, in writing, and by E-mail key people involved in the handling of the dead in three of the countries affected by the tsunami: Thailand (where 8,345 people died), Indonesia (where 165,708 people died), and Sri Lanka (where 35,399 people died). The authors discovered that there were a huge number of people and agencies involved in the handling of the dead; for example, in Indonesia 42 different organizations were involved in recovering bodies.
None of the countries had sufficient refrigerated storage available to store bodies until they could be identified. Some effective alternatives were used, such as temporary burial in shallow graves—where the temperature is lower than in the ambient air—with the intention of exhuming the bodies later for identification. However, many bodies were hurriedly buried in mass graves because they were decomposing; these bodies were almost impossible to identify.
Methods and efficiency of identification varied between and within countries. One hospital in Sri Lanka excelled by systematically photographing all bodies brought in and recording sex, height, and personal effects: 87% of the bodies brought here were identified. But in most areas rates of identification were much lower. It seemed that simple methods of identification were the most useful: photographs taken quickly before the bodies started to decompose, dental records, and personal effects found on the bodies. DNA analysis was only useful for a small number of bodies.
When it came to disposal of the bodies, again procedures differed widely, and in some cases were dictated by religious needs—for example, in some Muslim communities all bodies were buried within 24 hours, making counting and identification of the dead very difficult. Mass graves were often used, but these caused problems; for example, haphazard arrangement of the bodies meant that later exhumation and identification would be impossible.
The authors concluded that there was virtually no health impact of the dead bodies on survivors. Other studies found that there were no epidemics among the surviving population, and that most effects were on those who handled bodies in temporary morgues, where there were the expected variety of sharp-implement injuries and mucosal splashes with body fluids, along with heat stress and dehydration due to overuse of personal protective equipment such as respirators.
What Do These Findings Mean?
How efficiently bodies were handled after the tsunami varied widely across and even within countries. The authors conclude that much of this variety was because of a lack of national or local plans for such mass fatalities, along with a lack of practical field guidelines. There was little coordination of all of the different organizations involved. However, in some places bodies were handled very well. The authors drew on their findings to suggest guidelines for the possible future management of large numbers of bodies, and also suggested that further research should be done. Reassuringly, the large numbers of bodies did not cause problems for the survivors, so in the future survivors should be encouraged to systematically identify the dead rather than rushing to bury them because of fear of disease.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030195.
• The World Heath Organization has a Web page that brings together much information on the tsunami and its aftermath
• News from the United Nations special envoy for the tsunami can be found on its Web site
• An article published by the Pan American Health Organization called “Disaster Myths That Just Won't Die”
• Field guidelines for managing mass fatality natural disasters developed by an international workshop following the tsunami