Handling Dead Bodies: Covid-19 Considerations

By Raphael Christopher

The coronavirus death toll is rising around the world and looks set to continue rising until an internationally accepted vaccine is found and available for the world’s population.

Although, there is a report of a Russian made vaccine coming out of Russia, the international community’s response to this report are cautious at the moment and this may change however there are no doubt, that, there are vaccines in various stages of development, however most reports are that these vaccines are now undergoing clinical trials and may be ready towards the end of this year as the best option and early next year as the worst case scenario.

Until then, the world has before it many unprecedented challenges in every aspect of our society. Today, we need to consider the Covid 19 impact on burials, handling of dead bodies, and every one involved in the end of life care. This also concerns workers in healthcare, the forensics industry, mortuaries and funeral workers who are charged with managing dead bodies.

The reason and the importance of this has to do with the medical discovery that the Coronavirus that causes Covid -19 deaths has been shown to remain alive and infectious in body fluids and tissues in a dead body even after death. The exact duration of its longevity inside a dead person is currently unknown but have been shown to have remained infectious for over 72 hours from the time of death.

In fact, it has been reported of several deaths of people who have died as a result of contracting Covid 19 infection from handling a dead body.

As is now understood, we still do not know fully all the effects of the Covid-19 virus and how it functions. For instance, we now know that the fact that one survives the COVID-19 does not mean that reinfection is not possible. Also, different survivors have seen that they have long term health difficulties particularly around breathing and lung issues. Not only that, they never recover back all their health and strength.

Why this is, is not yet fully clear but medical research are continuing. With the above developments, it is imperative that the government’s medical advice of social distancing, wearing face masks and avoiding large crowds are heeded and taken very very seriously as they are based on sound medical research.

As we have personally experienced and also personally known many families across the world who have tragically suffered the loss of beloved members of the family, loved one, friends and relatives to the Covid-19 virus and this traumatic experiences has had and still has terrible consequences, long term emotional scarring, grief and trauma and will never be completely healed for the rest of their lives.

Yet, the fact of death does not stop the existence and infectiousness of the residual hazard of the Covid-19 virus for various reasons. The virus can still be transmitted to anyone involved in handling of the dead person in many ways. In fact, current studies show that the virus can live in a state that can still infect others for up to 3 days and potentially longer where the deceased bodies are refrigerated.

The ways in which this can happen are threefold. One, there will be droplets of Covid that potentially will be coming from the deceased that may infect those charged with their care. The second way in which infection can occur would be during the post-mortem medical procedures especially around the use of power tools to carry out the procedures and their use would generate aerosol contaminations. This is very much a big risk in forensic examinations especially when dealing with murder victims or other victims of assaults, rape and other violent crimes. The third way in which Covid-19 could be transferred has to do with any contact directly with the dead persons properties, contaminated clothes, soiled beddings, beds, furniture and environmental surfaces.

How do you deal with this existential threat to life whilst showing due respect and honour to our dead?

Well, the first thing is to realise how much life has changed and the grave danger posed by the Covid-19 virus in these areas of our burial practices and develop a willingness to accept a change of our culture in these areas.

We have to educate our society and our section of the world on the dangers lurking in our hitherto accepted ways and culture and be prepared to change otherwise to keep everyone safe.

Now to practical steps. It is widely known that the three pronged approach is required here. They all involve placing a barrier between the deceased’s body’s fluids, properties and environment and the person or persons managing the deceased bodies.

Firstly, there should be a barrier such as a face mask placed over the mouth and nose of the deceased person which will prevent any release of infectious droplets of the COVID-19 virus that may be transmitted to those managing the care of the deceased persons.

Secondly, the properties of the deceased should be bagged with sterile and disinfected packaging and the rooms, beddings and other properties of the deceased should be disinfected and cleaned to the highest infectious disease standards.

Thirdly, it is recommended that the deceased’s body is placed in a disinfected hygienic and aesthetically pleasing body bag before burial all the properties of the deceased have to be disinfected and treated with extreme caution.

Fourthly, everyone involved in the management of COVID-19 deceased persons should as a matter of utmost urgency make sure that they are wearing personal protection equipment at all times when dealing with dead bodies and management of hospitals, healthcare facilities and mortuaries.

Further, established protocol should be developed and established to continually test everyone that has come into contact with the deceased and ensure that anyone developing Covid-19 symptoms such as any new continuous cough, a temperature, or a loss of taste, a change in their normal sense of taste or smell should be placed on self isolation of 14 days duration and appropriate medical care accessed immediately to present the sick person with the best possible outcomes health wise.

This advice also should be applied to every members of the infected person household who should also self isolate for at least 14 days.

Furthermore, in all cases, personal hygiene should be mandatory for all persons in all healthcare facilities, mortuaries and even at home. It should become mandatory to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds and if where facilities to wash hands are not available, then hand sanitiser should be used, and it is advisable to wear face masks and carry hand sanitizers with you at all times.

Another area of personal hygiene that needs to be attended to is to educate everyone to avoid touching their eyes, picking their noses and coughing into the air and in crowded places. They should be advised to ideally cough into a handkerchief or into their elbows.

Some have advised that cremation should be a consideration due to the nature of the Covid-19 virus but current medical advice agrees that cremation is not essential, especially here it goes against the wishes of the deceased or religion. In which case, the wishes of the deceased or the deceased’s family should be followed but in a safe manner and if there is going to be a grave burial, the gravediggers and everyone involved with preparing the deceased body for burial should at the very least have personal protective equipment and follow strict rules of hygiene.

In summary, we are living in very strange times and as such it is not business as usual and we all need to do our bit by being aware of the issues facing everyone and following government’s advice to ensure the safety of members of our society and the above guidance, hopefully will help to keep everyone safe and ensure that proper procedures are out in place to ensure the safety of all while giving our deceased loved ones dignity in how we assist them to rest in peace whilst keeping the living safe.

  • Raphael Christopher is a Senior member of Enugu Bar

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