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Disposal of human corpses

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 providing a breeding ground for various bacteria. For these reasons, corpses must be disposed of properly. The problem of body disposal has two parts: disposal of the soft tissues, which will rapidly decompose, and of the skeleton, which will remain intact for thousands of years under the right conditions.

There are many ways that human bodies have been disposed of, in ways that range from reverent to expedient. Practices relating to the disposal of corpses vary widely depending on religion,and jurisdiction. Because death is a universal experience, almost every culture has some ritual associated with death, such as a funeral. Although the disposal of the corpse may be separate from the ritual declaring the death of the person, in many ways the disposal itself is an element of the ritual, and may be the subject of a gathering.

Common means of disposal

In most societies, burial of the entire body is the most common method of disposal. Cremation, which burns soft tissue and renders the skeleton to ash, is the second most common.

Less common methods include:

Different religions and cultures have various funeral rites that accompany the disposal of the body. Some require that all parts of the body are buried together. In the case of an autopsy, removed parts of the body are sewn back into the body so that they may be buried with the rest of the corpse. In the Western World embalming of the body is a standard part of preparation.

In the case of mass disasters, or epidemics, large groups of people have been buried in mass graves or plague pits.

Secret disposal

Mass graves have also been used to dispose of the victims of genocide and war crimes.

Somebody who is or feels guilty of another person's death (manslaughter, accident), or is afraid of being accused of a crime in relation with the death may try to dispose of the body in such a way that finding it is more difficult or impossible, to delay people finding out about the death, to conceal the identity of the deceased, and to avoid autopsy. Even without guilt of death it may be kept secret, e.g. to collect the pension of the victim, or (at least in some fiction) children may not want the death to be found out, because they want to avoid getting a new legal guardian.

The victim falls in the category missing persons as long as a body is not found, unless death is so likely that the person is declared "legally dead".

The most common is burying the body in a shallow grave. Other methods are leaving the body in a deserted place or a private place, such as one's freezer, dumping it in a body of water, dissolving it with corrosive chemicals, hiding it in cement or concrete, and burning it. Sometimes the body is cut into pieces (e.g. dismemberment) to facilitate disposal; it also enables disposal of each piece separately.

The mafia have been known to have the bodies chopped up (i.e. dismembered) then put in the trunk of the person's car. The car is then taken to a mafia-affiliated junkyard and the body crushed, leaving no trace and the car is gone so a murder investigation is never even started.

In many coastal areas it is common for persons who were murdered to be disposed of by mean of a crab pot. A murderer may simply hack up the dead, remove the teeth and finger nails, and crush the skull. Then the deceased is put into a crab pot, put to sea.

Legal regulation

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.

Special cases

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 at a battlefield, body bags are used to store corpses.

When parts of the body die, such as limbs or internal organs, without the individual dying, as in the case of necrosis, they usually are not given a funeral. In most cases, surgical removal of dead tissue is 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.

Where permitted, organ donation may re-use some of the dead person's organs for medical purposes; in this case, the organs may live on long after the death of their original owner.

Attitudes towards stillborn fetuses have changed in recent years; in the past they were often disposed of as clinical waste, but are now commonly given funerals.

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