The Impossibility of Identifying the Dead in Haiti
How can a country in the grip of an apocalyptic tragedy deal in a dignified way with its victims?
Paul Harris, The Guardian (January 17, 2010)
The current stories emanating from Haiti are incomprehensibly awful. This Guardian article uses the word apocalyptic and that seems utterly appropriate.
A crisis situation of this enormity is compounded by the sheer number of immediate human needs. One of those key requirements is the rapid identification, removal, and burial of dead bodies. The problem in Haiti is that an already weak infrastructure is unable to handle the number of dead bodies produced by the earthquake. In this crisis situation, the normalized rules for handling the dead cannot cope with all the corpses.
And yet, something must be done with the dead bodies.
Part of the assistance being sent by the United States involves dispatching Disaster Mortuary Organizational Response Teams or DMORT groups to Haiti. DMORT is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services and specializes in handling mass fatality situations. These are the kinds of individuals on DMORT Teams (as listed on the HHS website):
funeral directors, medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, forensic anthropologists, medical records technicians and transcribers, finger print specialists, forensic odontologists, dental assistants, x-ray technicians, mental health specialists, computer professionals, administrative support staff, and security and investigative personnel.
Here is an article about a University of Florida Forensic Entomologist, Dr. Jason Byrd, who is already in Haiti with a DMORT group.
Private companies are also sending groups to Haiti. The main provider of mass disaster/fatality services in the private sector is Kenyon International Emergency Services. Kenyon is based in Houston, TX and owned by Service Corporation International (SCI). SCI is the largest global provider of funeral, cemetery, and cremation services and got into the mass fatality business in the mid-2000’s. I will write more about SCI and Kenyon at a later date.
For right now, both DMORT and Kenyon will be attempting to do the following things:
1.) Identify any of the dead that they can
2.) bury the dead in an organized fashion
3.) use a tagging system of some kind so that the dead can be (possibly) identified at a later date.
These tasks are made vastly more complicated by the rush to bury bodies in mass graves. There is a common misconception that dead bodies spread disease. That’s not entirely true and this CNN article covers these points. What dead bodies do create is a terrible smell. Decomposing dead bodies are also difficult to look at. When you multiply these problems by 100,000 dead bodies (this is just the body count estimate at this point) then immediate disposal of the corpses becomes easier to understand.
The following video clip from CNN sums up the situation: