Beyond Collapse

Surviving and Rebuilding Civilization from Scratch

This Mortal Coil

Dealing With Death On Your Own

It’s that time again, campers! However, I want to bring up a little something that recently struck home for me, and how it can translate to a very real (and likely very common) post-SHTF chore: How to bury your dead. This topic came home two ways.

First way? My wife has an uncle who is now a (temporary) resident in our home. Loves fishing, beer, a former Hell’s Angel, and men in Los Angeles still feared him. He arrived by UPS, in a small box. So why is he here? Well, we live geographically closest to her family’s plot, so we get to make sure he’s deposited in it once the family can garner enough agreement as to who pays for the burial services. It’s been about a month now, but he’s one of the quietest guests I’ve ever hosted, so I don’t mind. He once weighed 220 lbs, now he weighs in at 17 lbs or so, and he sits on a shelf in the living room –  in a little brown plastic box labeled “Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.”

Second way? Two weeks ago, a friend of ours left this mortal coil. Even though he was in his 70′s, he loved to exercise… as in, former Marine aviator doing a 16-mile trot for fun on Sunday mornings kind of workout. Vietnam veteran, but the happiest, gentlest, and most well-adjusted man I ever met. Loved getting his hands dirty. The autopsy discovered a stroke, and the police found him somewhere around mile 12 of his last run. It was the customary part of his run where he loved to “talk to God.”  My wife and I literally held his youngest son (26 yrs old), as he broke down in our living room while telling us the news. Given that he was a good man, I was a little choked-up myself.

Sitting in the funeral (ever been to one for a friend? Not Fun), my mind wandered a bit… As most good preppers are wont to do, I got to thinking about how one of these would go without the massive support and resources that civilization has. This is what I came up with…


Bring Out Your Dead!

Let’s start with first things – you say you’ve got a fresh corpse on your hands. Unlike in my above examples, there’s no friendly neighborhood funeral home, coroner, crematorium, etc. to handle this, so it’s on you, big guy… Now whatcha gonna do about it?

Well, first off, make sure the guy is well and truly dead. No really – you will want to be sure on this one.

Pictured: One indication that you screwed this one up...

Pictured: One indication that you really screwed this up.


I’m serious about this, by the way – before modern civilization, the number of people who were buried while still alive was disturbingly large. Folks would slip into a coma (usually from some sort of disease), only to wake up later, in a box, underground, where they would die a dark and horrid death by suffocation. Archaeologists would often exhume coffins from previous eras which had heavy scratch marks underneath the coffin lid, if that’s any indication of how common it was.

So – unless you want your loved one to suffer that kind of sendoff into the afterlife, maybe you want to insure that the person is well and truly dead. How to do this? Let’s start with the obvious: Heartbeat, respiration, reactivity. Find the carotid artery (on the neck – look for your own first if you’re not sure), keep your fingers there, and feel for a heartbeat for at least five solid minutes. With a small penlight (or a candle if nothing else), move a bright light on and off of the victim’s open eye, checking for the pupil (that little black hole on the eye) to contract and expand. Check the body temperature (anally, and be sure you never use the thing on a live person!) – the body will reach room temperature after a day or two. Finally, bathe the victim and let him or her lay on a table for at least 2-3 days between estimated point of death and burial – with someone watching the whole time for any sign of life. This can give you time to dig the hole, prepare the body, and give family and friends time to have a proper funeral if the deceased has them around.

Now in times of crisis, and when things are all hairy out there, you may not have the effort to spare or the means to pay close attention. In such a case, simply set the body out back with some dignity for at least 3 days.


Faces (and Butts) of Death

If you’re going to have a stiff hanging around for a day or two (and as a family, it’ll give you time to grieve and prepare the body for funeral, so this is a good thing) it helps to know what in the hell to expect. In this age of professional  funeral services, most of the dirty bits are hidden from the typical citizen.

So, in the interest of education, here’s some of what you’re in for…

  • The body often gains a blue or waxy tint, starting at the toes and fingers, even while the victim is alive. This is due to an increasing lack of circulation as the heart begins to fail. Eventually the lips and closer extremities turn waxy and/or blue as well.The body gets pale completely somewhere between 15 minutes and two hours after death.
  •  There’s a reason I said to bathe the body earlier, and it’s not a cleanliness fetish. At the moment of death, the deceased will have all of his muscles relax – including the mouth, diaphragm, anus, bladder, you-name-it. Those last two I mentioned mean that if there’s anything in the bowels or bladder, it’s gonna come out. On the sheets, so be prepared to burn those puppies once you’re done with them.
  • If you turn or move the body, you may feel an out-rushing of breath from the body – sometimes air is trapped in a collapsed lung and gets released when the body moves.
  • After a few hours, Livor Mortis begins to kick in – this is where the blood begins to settle towards the lower parts of the body. Without a heart to pump the stuff around, gravity kicks in and pulls the blood downwards.
  • The body will initially stiffen as Rigor Mortis sets in. The body starts getting stiff in about 3-4 hours after death, gets completely stiff 12 hours later, then gradually dissipates until somewhere between 2 to 2.5 days after death.
  • Gas buildup will be inevitable anytime after the sixth hour… all that half-digested food in the gut will begin to rot – this leads to a bit of farting and/or belching every time you move the body, and an odor that will guarantee you’ll smell death. This gas may also cause the deceased to sit up, twitch, move, and a whole bunch of other little things that will positively scare the crap out of you.
  •  If the temperature is hot enough outside, you’ll get to see (and smell) decomposition kick in early – within a couple of days (or sooner in really hot weather), the eyes will begin to deflate, fluids (and any uncoagulated blood) will start running out of any convenient orifice (as well as ooze through the decomposing skin), and the odor will quickly get unbearable. Note that the body will also begin to swell up heavily, especially in the abdominal area.

So now you have someone, and you know he or she is dead… now what? Well, you’re mostly down to two practical choices – cremation or burial. Any other option is, well, outlandish. So, let’s explore these two routes, shall we?


Burn Baby, Burn


No no no no NO! This will NOT work!


Cremation is the fastest and easiest to perform, right? Well, wrong. In order to properly cremate a body, you’re going to need enough long-burning fuel (e.g. wood or coal), going at a high enough temperature, and have it going for long enough to get the job done completely.  Consider that you’re trying to convert 100-200 lbs (or more?) of human flesh into dry ash – that’s going to take a lot of heat. Modern crematorium furnaces generate temperatures of 1600-1800 degrees F to do the job, running for about one hour per 100 lbs of body weight. (source:

A final potential obstacle is religious-oriented. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Traditional Jews, and even some Mormon sects disapprove of cremation.

All that said: if you’re going to do it, do it right, else you risk the potential for disease and contamination. At least a full cord of wood (or the equivalent in coal) will be needed for one average 180 lb body. It would be preferable to have two cords, though any extra can be put to use elsewhere. Stack at least half the amount, then place the body atop it. if you have any sort of accelerant to get things started (gasoline, diesel fuel, etc), it’s a good idea to use it. Use the other half of the fuel to keep it going until there is no discernible body part left. You may have to gently push the extremities into the center of the fire, but keep it going at least until the bones are dry, then crack and come apart very easily. Once you are done, you can bury the remains or do what you will with them, as they will be generally safe to handle at that point.

Finally? If you do go the cremation route, have a designated place to do it, and make sure everyone in the community puts it to use.


How To Plant a Human

…one shovelful at a time.

The easiest way to dispose of a body is to bury it. The task of digging a grave looks a lot more arduous than it really is, but to be honest it requires less work than cutting/gathering all that wood and then tending a fire for hours on end.

Digging a hole requires just one person – mostly because during the latter stages of excavation, only one person will fit in the hole to finish digging it.  However, you’ll want more than one person if you can, because digging a grave is still going to be hard work, and a hole that deep will present safety concerns – especially in sandy or unstable soil, so you’ll want someone looking out for you. Be sure to refer to the book as to where best to site your grave (failing that, an existing graveyard from pre-SHTF days woks best.)

You’ll want more than just a shovel or two – a pickaxe is going to make the process much easier to do, as you come across tree roots, rocks, and sundry other chunks of stuff. It’s preferable to do this in shifts if there’s more than one person. Dig the hole at least 4′ deep, 3′ wide, and 1′ longer than the deceased. In regions where there are large predators (e.g. bears, cougars, etc), be sure to dig 6′ deep to prevent, say, a bear, from digging up your loved one and eating him or her.

Note that in winter, the ground may well be as hard as a rock down to the frost line for your region. In that case, building a fire to melt the ice out of the soil for the first 18-36 inches makes for a workable solution to the problem.

Believe it or not, a coffin is actually optional. In many cultures (even colonial America), the body is usually buried in a cloth shroud, and coffins were usually used only by wealthier people. That said, a coffin is fairly easy to knock together, assuming you have enough nails and lumber to get the job done.

After whatever ceremonies you feel appropriate are completed, and the body is interred, be sure that *all* of the dirt which came out of the hole is put back in, then piled on top. Over time, the coffin may collapse, the dirt will settle, and time will make the ground level again.


Disposal In Numbers

Let’s face it – a true civilization-ending SHTF situation will produce a *lot* of corpses. Disposing of them is not just a matter of cleanliness, but of health. In such a case, you’ll want to find somewhere convenient and quick to dispose of all that dead flesh. In situations like this, it is not extreme to put a working backhoe or bulldozer to work, building a mass grave and quickly covering the bodies. Yes that’ll cost diesel fuel, but the savings in health (and life!) will be worth it. Find a suitable site, then dig a trench large enough to hold all of the bodies, plus enough dirt to cover them to a depth of 4-6 feet. If necessary, dig multiple trenches and break up the pile of bodies into manageable numbers.

Cremation at a mass level is doable, but it will require a *lot* of fuel, time, and work – and the smoke will get everywhere. This is an option if you’re very short on manpower, but have way too many bodies to dispose of, then it may be your only real choice. For instance, find a large(-ish) house that is vacant and away from anything that could catch fire (like trees, other houses, etc.) Pile in as many bodies and fuel as you can. When ready, add some liquid fuel to the bottom floor (or lowest point), and torch the whole thing from there, keeping watch over any stray cinders and/or sparks, so they don’t start fires elsewhere.

Other alternatives? If there’s an abandoned mineshaft, sewage piping, cave, or other sufficiently-sized hole in the ground (that you otherwise have no use for), mass burial in these places can be done. If you live next to an ocean, a mass burial at sea (in shifts) can be done as well. Just be sure that weights are used to prevent the bodies from bobbing back up to the surface.


How Not to Dispose of a Body

Dumping your dead, say, down-river? Not recommended, at all. First off, you may live upstream of another group of survivors, and they’re going to get awful angry at you for contaminating their water supply. Secondly, bodies have a habit of not floating very far, so some of them will still contaminate your local area. Finally, dead bodies attract scavengers and predators, and the local wildlife will not be as scared of you anymore – especially since there won’t be so many of you around.

Cannibalism? Umm, no. Even if you’re literally starving to death, don’t even think of trying it. Unless you know exactly what killed your intended dinner, and you eat him or her promptly, you’re risking near-certain disease and death yourself. Decomposition quickly renders a body completely risky to eat, even in very low temperatures. Cooking under primitive conditions won’t remove all viruses, bacteria, and cancers… all of which would be very receptive towards inhabiting another human body – namely yours. Best to eat a dead animal –any non-primate animal– where the diseases present in it aren’t as risky to your own life and limb.

Displaying the body of a raider or other criminal as a warning? After writing the book, I thought about this a bit… and it’s probably not a good idea. For one, the chance of disease is pretty high, even if no one touches the thing. Secondly, if the deceased is related to someone in the next settlement/town/etc over, they may take exception to one of their own being displayed as a trophy… even if the guy had it coming.

Most other means have their pros and cons, mostly cons, unless a very narrow circumstance happens to dictate otherwise, so you don’t have to worry too much when it comes to your preps.


Bits and Bobs

Speaking of preps, some things to keep on hand? That depends on how you intend (or to be honest, prefer) to bury your dead. This is not to say you have to prepare for failure, but it does mean you should prepare for the inevitable; even if you survive and live 40 years beyond, you’re still going to croak, so you may as well have the things you need for that eventuality.

For burial, keep a few shovels and at least a couple of pickaxes on hand. You can go the economy route by having a couple of large cloth sacks (large enough to fit inside) for use as burial shrouds. If you want to go one better, then store enough lumber to build coffins for everyone. No need to build them just yet… you may have a more immediate use for the materials before then. Just be sure that in either case, you include enough rope to gently lower the body, shroud, and/or coffin into the ground. Also be sure you have a bunch of spare rags or towels to use in order to soak up any fluids from the body between point of death and the burial.

For cremation, your best bet is to store some fuel (gasoline or diesel), and the means to get as much firewood (or coal) as you need to get the job done… and that’s it.

No matter which route you take, it will be handy to keep a lot of extra sheets around, and keep a thermometer specifically to check dead bodies with if you’re not certain (in colder weather, it’ll be harder to tell otherwise).

Anything beyond that? Depends on your religious preferences and moral ethos.

Finality, in Finality

I want to mention that in spite of the attempts at humor above, death is a very serious thing. It has the unfortunate aspect of being rather final, and with very few biblical exceptions, it is rather irrevocable. Having this happen to a loved one is one of the harshest aspects you will ever experience, and is gut-wrenching to the extreme. What this means for you is this: if the body is of someone you do not recognize, treat it with respect. At one time, someone loved that person -even when the corpse is your problem, someone likely still does love him or her. Treat the body gently, kindly, as if it were your sibling or parent. Even in the case of mass burials, try your best to give a modicum of respect and dignity.

Even if you’re selfish and hateful beyond belief, remember this – someday, it will be your body being carried to burial or cremation. You see, death happens to us all…including you and I. Keep that in mind the next time you have to deal with someone else whose turn has come.

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Sunday, June 30th, 2013 Generic Musings, Immediately After, Long-Term, Short-Term Comments Off

Notions, Post-SHTF

It’s been an interesting few weeks – the job hunt is going well, but meanwhile our dear neighbors dropped off a few very interesting presents that bolstered our preps immensely. I’ll explain that a bit more:

Our neighbors work from home, contracting to go out and clean out foreclosed homes, trailers, you-name-it. Since the banks want the places empty, they really don’t care what happens to the contents of a given home. So, our neighbors make a modest-but-tidy living rehabilitating and selling appliances and other large, useful items. They also haul out everything else, as occasionally the home is owned by someone who has left this mortal coil, with no relatives to jump in and pick up the mortgage.

So, one fine evening, knowing that my missus is a sewing freak, my neighbors drop off these huge totes full of stuff for sewing, cross-stitch, quilting, knitting, etc. It’s a goldmine of stuff, and it got me to thinking…

Post-Apocalyptic Fashionista

Let’s look down the road, 15 years after The Big One. Forget what happened, don’t speculate on how it happened, or any of that. All we need to know is that you survived, and you now have a family, living in a thriving post-apocalyptic community.

So… what will you be wearing? More importantly, what will your kids be wearing? How do you keep the cold at bay outdoors during the winter? What’s on your feet? What does your spouse use to keep her ‘girls’ reined in, given that bras don’t really exist in quantity? You see where I’m getting at right?

If you followed the book, you would have been smart enough to load up an impressive pile of clothes, blankets and shoes from the local thrift shops, garage sales, and the like. You would have also stockpiled kids’ clothes, right?

Well, good for you, but how are you going to maintain them? What happens when a button pops loose or breaks? What if you want to make a wedding dress for your daughter? What happens if the climate shifts a little, making your current clothing pile somewhat inadequate for the new and lower temperatures (hey, it could happen). Most importantly of all, how would you like to make a lot of post-apocalyptic scratch for only a little effort and skill?

Getting a Notion for Notions

Okay – so the wise guys among us prepping types would have stockpiled or scrounged/built a sewing machine that needs no electricity. You’ll have miles of thread and acres of fabrics stockpiled, right? Maybe you thought to stockpile a few metal and plastic bobbins?

Okay, so how about buttons? Even more devious – how much cordage, hem-tape, elastic, lace, assorted trim, and the like do you have? What about sturdy hook fasteners, Velcro(tm), zippers (of various sizes and toughness), ribbons, and such? How many pairs of scissors do you have, along with a means to sharpen them? A pair or two of pinking shears and small trimming scissors would be nice – how many have you got? What about measuring tape and seam rippers? Chalk? Do you have a means of threading needles as your eyes and dexterity lessen? What are you going to use to insulate a coat, or a blanket?

Oh, here’s one – can you make a pattern, or carefully disassemble a bit of clothing to make a pattern? What if that makeshift pattern has to become a different size of clothing? By the way, how many pins do you have? Most tough outdoor clothing will use rivets – what will you use for that? Patterns – you have a zillion of them, or perhaps a ton of craft(kraft?) paper and pencils to make your own, right?

If you haven’t noticed by now, we’re talking about what most ladies who know sewing refer to as “notions” – all of those little bits and bobs that make a skirt stay on your hips, keeps your fly closed, keeps a coat from flapping in the breeze – you know, things like that. Mind you I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what all could be covered by the term.

These sewing notions can also make a home-sewn bit of clothing look prettier. Laugh all you want, but pretty clothing can make the difference at market between a functional shift dress that may get you two cans of beans, or a pretty dress that took very little extra work, but will fetch eight cans or more, depending on your skill.

Skills To Pay The Bills

It’s easy to rack up a lot of this stuff, though you will definitely want to keep an eye on the budget, because this stuff can get pricey in a hurry. All that said, sewing is one hell of a skill. My wife rolls her eyes in confusion when I worked from home, and wondered at how I can pull off engineering skills, even on-the-fly. Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret – I marvel at how she can buy a thrift-store dress that’s “cute” but not her size, carefully deconstruct it, make and modify the resulting pattern, make a mock-up of the new dress, then sew it into a form that looks just like the original did, but now fits her perfectly.

Sewing takes patience, a mental ability at geometry, a talent for mental inventory (fabric, thread color, notions, etc) and a deft hand (even with a sewing machine). If you do not have the skills? Get them. Master them. I guarantee that once you do, you will be well ahead of the crowd in a post-collapse world.

Even if you’re not going to become a post-collapse seamstress or tailor, get a bit of skill at patching, some basic stitches, and enough skill to make a usable/sturdy set of clothing. You’ll thank me later, when you actually need that clothing.

All Good Things…

Let’s face it – clothes become threadbare, get dirty beyond cleaning, they tear, and in general they wear out. Post-collapse, some big things to scrounge would be as much thread, needles and fabric as you can lay hands on. But while you’re in there loading up, don’t forget the notions. You may indeed surprise yourself with the amount of time saved and prosperity you can gain from having/using the stuff.

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Monday, March 18th, 2013 Long-Term, Short-Term Comments Off