Preparing the body for disposal

Find out how bodies are prepared, covered, stored, enclosed  and, finally, transported for disposal.

Body Bag

 © Australian Museum

Preparing the body

A number of changes take place in the body during the period after death. The body starts to become stiff after around three hours as a result of rigor mortis, before relaxing again after thirty hours. Blood drains from capillaries in the skin of the upper surface, and collects in blood vessels in the lower surface. Fluids may leak from natural body openings, particularly if decomposition is allowed to occur.

Hospital staff 'lay out' the body of someone who dies in hospital, washing the body, placing the hands on the chest or lap, applying bandages to keep the mouth and limbs in position, and packing absorbent material around the body openings. These activities can also be performed by a funeral director or family member in the case of deaths at home.Funeral directors may apply make up, to mask the pallid appearance, and they can also embalm the body if required. Preservatives are injected into the circulatory system during the embalming process, and this treatment slows the rate of decomposition by a making the body unsuitable for the growth of bacteria and insects.Full arterial embalming is required by law if the body is to be 'buried' in an above-ground vault or if the body is held without refrigeration in the care of a funeral director. This situation often arises when the body is made available for viewing or for extended vigils. Embalming can only be performed by a qualified and registered embalmer.

Covering the body

Bodies must only be transported in body bags or other approved covering. The specifications for a body bag in New South Wales are listed in the Public Health (Disposal of bodies) Regulations, 2002. Additional precautions must be taken when the person has died from one of the infectious diseases listed in the Regulations. Although not specified in the Regulations, a body can presumably be transported to its final destination in a coffin rather than a body bag.

Infectious diseases

The Public Health Act Regulations include two lists of infectious diseases that influence certain aspects the disposal of bodies. If the dead person is infected with a 'List A' disease (e.g. HIV), the body-bag used for transporting the body must be clearly labeled with a warning. If the person is infected with a 'List B' disease (e.g. Diphtheria), the body bag must carry the warning and the body may not be removed from the body bag. Consequently, bodies infected with List B diseases may not be embalmed or made available for viewing.

Storage of the body

Normally, a body can be held by a person for no more than five days or by a funeral director for seven working days and it must be held in a certified holding facility. However, the Director General of the NSW Health can give conditional approval for storage in a private home. This approval can be obtained by sending a fax outlining the funeral plans to the relevant Area Health Service Public Health Unit who will send approval by return fax if the plans are acceptable.

To protect public health, a body cannot be stored unrefrigerated for more than 48 hours. Normally a funeral director will take care of the body, and funeral directors must have approved, refrigerated holding facilities. Some hospitals may be able to store the body of someone who has died in hospital until a family can arrange a funeral. However, many busy hospitals would be unable to do this. If a family is well prepared for a funeral prior to death, it would be possible to dispose of the body without needing refrigerated storage. For example, Muslims and Jews prefer to bury a body within 24 hours of death. Some do-it-yourself funerals have successfully kept the body chilled using frozen two-litre milk containers, packed around the body.

Enclosing the body

All bodies that are buried or cremated must be in a coffin at the time of disposal, unless approval is granted by the Director General. (For example, many Muslims are granted approval for burial in a shroud.) The Regulations do not specify any design restrictions but the funeral industry is currently producing some guidelines. This is to make sure that coffins meet logistic requirements such as fitting standard grave dimensions, or cremators, and meeting occupational health and safety requirements.

All coffins for cremation must have a fixed, but easy to remove nameplate, that is used in tracking the identity of the remains through the cremation process. It is possible to build your own coffin, to purchase a cardboard coffin from interstate, or to purchase a bamboo coffin from overseas. However, it may be difficult to find a funeral director who is prepared to use a coffin that they have not supplied.

Transporting and disposing of the body

A list of regulations apply to the transport of bodies by funeral directors, but there is nothing to prevent a private vehicle being used for one-off body transport. Many crematoria and cemeteries, however, will be unwilling to receive a body that has not been transported by funeral director in a hearse. This is an example of the sort of logistical difficulty that would need to be explored prior to the death if a person is attempting to manage a private funeral.

Most bodies in New South Wales are disposed of by burial (45 %) or cremation (55 %). However, there is no legislation specifying that bodies must be disposed of in this way. Approximately four burials at sea take place in Australian waters each year and several funeral directors offer this service. Some people donate their bodies to science which is regulated under the Anatomy Act. A Swedish researcher is working on a scheme to freeze-dry bodies prior to chipping and composting, so that they can be used as a garden fertiliser. There are currently no laws to prevent this, or other schemes, from being used in NSW. Presumably, the law would evolve to regulate new disposal methods if they become popular.


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