The Evil Dead

Someone asked me to go over a chapter he wrote, about the impact of certain customs on human health. One of them was the health advantages of quick burial: the problem is, usually there aren’t any.   People seem to think that the organisms causing decomposition are pathogenic, but they’re not.  People killed by trauma (earthquakes,  floods, bullets) are dead enough, but not a threat.  Sometimes, the body of someone that died of an infectious disease is contagious – smallpox scabs have been known to remain infectious for a long, long time – but most causative agents are unable to survive for long after the host’s death. Now if you’re dissecting someone,  especially if they’re fresh, you probably don’t want to nick yourself with the scalpel – but if you just walk past the corpse and refrain from playing with it, you’re usually OK.

In the past, it may have been a good idea to bury people quickly, so as not to encourage a taste for human flesh in local predators, but that’s a somewhat indirect risk

Someone asked Lewis Thomas about the health risks of unburied bodies, with the intent of using a public-health threat as a legitimate reason to break the undertaker’s strike in New York – but the threat just wasn’t there. He said so, being an imperfectly political person.


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70 Responses to The Evil Dead

  1. Fintan says:

    Ehh, no. You don’t need to handle corpses for them to quickly become a public health threat. Post-mortem emesis, as well as putrefaction in general, tends to produce quite a lot of “nutrient soup” for any passing animals or insects to wallow in. Any pathogen that is easily spread via the fecal-oral route is almost as easily spread by the combination exposed, unburied corpses in moist, warm environments and the action of animals and insects.

    Flies are particularly adept at finding rotting corpses, and the lovely juices leaking from them, and are quite happy to spend their time on this Earth leaving fly-specks of said corpse-soup all around your living area and on all of your food-preparation surfaces.

    If, for example, you have a typhoid epidemic in your area, quickly and efficiently disposing of corpses in a sanitary fashion is damned good sense. You wouldn’t want Typhoid Mary’s festering corpse attracting flies or neighborhood dogs and cats any more than you’d want her alive and making you a sandwich, or alive and using an open slit latrine next to your house.

    Even when there’s not an existing epidemic where the contagion in question can be spread by filth contaminating water supplies or by contamination of food prep surfaces, humans do often host organisms that you don’t want spread around your living environment. Given that historically diarrhea and pneumonia have been the biggest killers, in many areas and eras being responsible for the deaths of between a sixth and half of all children born, then taking steps to reduce the free-spread of fecal matter and other savory gastrointestinal products (along with the full range of enterobacter) WOULD seem to be common sense.

    Prompt, sanitary containment and/or disposal of corpses drastically reduces the opportunity for scavengers or insects to spread disease. Just as prompt, sanitary disposal of human bodily waste reduces the spread of disease.

  2. gcochran9 says:

    With few exceptions, pathogens don’t long outlive the host.
    There is no evidence supporting your scenario. it’s all in your head. There have indeed been situations in which there were too few survivors to bury the dead, but no new epidemics seem to have been caused by this.

  3. J says:

    Anthrax. I remember in Argentina we were warned not to come near dead cows in the estancia The carcass was disposed with lime, when it was.

  4. Fintan says:

    “…no new epidemics seem to have been caused by this.”

    Why would there need to be a NEW epidemic? Isn’t further facilitating the spread of an existing one bad enough? Poor sanitation is bad business, period. Feces in the streets, or rotting corpses in the streets, contributes to the spread of disease. A cholera epidemic, for example, can often be stopped before it starts purely with good sanitation.

    “With few exceptions, pathogens don’t long outlive the host.” I wish that were so, there would be a lot less human misery in the world. Staphylococcus aureus can live for weeks to months on bedside curtains, one of the reasons nosocomial infections are such a bugger to prevent. Many of the strains of Salmonella enterica are quite capable of living for quite some time after the death of the host, otherwise sanitary food preparation wouldn’t be so difficult if you didn’t have to worry about dead chickens. Salmonella typhi can survive for weeks in water, nearly as long in sewage, and that’s not a pathogen you want to have a cavalier attitude towards — hell I lost a great-grandad to that back in the 30’s here in the States.

    If a pathogen is hardy enough to be spread via the fecal-oral route, then as a rule it’s hardy enough to live for a few days (and often weeks, rarely months) in cesspits and around moist, warm, rotting corpses. That’s more than sufficient for the first crop of flies to mature, or for scavengers to spread some filth around.

    Basic sanitation saves lives! That’s not in my head. Prompt and sanitary disposal of human corpses prevents the spread of disease, just as prompt and sanitary disposal of feces prevents the spread of disease. You don’t want open-pit latrines breeding swarms of flies, or contaminating surface water with runoff, nor do you want scavengers spreading feces around. You don’t want insects or scavengers spreading around bits and blobs of rotting human flesh either.

    It is important to dispose of, handle, or otherwise treat corpses in a sanitary fashion — they can indeed be a source of disease if you allow vectors near them or spread bits of them around yourself. I’m starting to see why Semmelweis had such a hard time convincing people of it back in the day.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I guess that’s why Chicago was decimated when hundreds of millions of alewives rotted on the beaches, following the mass die-off in 1967. It was so horrible that people don’t talk or write about it.

      Similar to the plagues that followed the rapid extermination of the Southern buffalo herd just after 1870. “A railway engineer said it was possible to walk 100 miles along the Santa Fe railroad
      right-of-way by stepping from one bison carcass to another.” Probably there were flies, which caused… ???

      • Fintan says:

        Much of what you posted is obtuse and just wrong. Here’s a gem:

        “…but if you just walk past the corpse and refrain from playing with it, you’re usually OK.” No Greg, this is why puerperal fever was a significant problem. You don’t have to have direct physical contact with a corpse yourself to be exposed any pathogens said corpse may be carrying — contact with doctors, or dogs, or flies have been proven sufficient time and time again.

        Unless your argument is that historical childhood mortality rates ranging from 25% to greater than 50% are “usually OK” and we shouldn’t be that worried about basic sanitation actions proven to reduce the human death toll from disease?

        Here’s another gem: “People seem to think that the organisms causing decomposition are pathogenic, but they’re not. ”

        What rot!
        Why are you trying to ignore the fact that numerous species of pathogenic bacteria are part of individual and population level microbiomes? Do you think the flora responsible for some parts of the decomposition process are the only microorganisms of note present in a human corpse? Your comment is a bit like trying to point out that rust on syringes is relatively harmless, with the implication that used needles are safe.

        Why are you trying to ignore the fact that providing insect and animal vectors with ready food sources and breeding grounds is going to further facilitate the spread of disease? Why are you trying to ignore the fact that insects can spread pathogens from an infection source to an uninfected population? Why are you trying to ignore the fact that corpses can be both a source of pathogens (S. typhi, various other types of enterobacter, pathogenic Staphylococcus, etc.) and a fertile breeding ground for insect vectors (as well as a food source for animal vectors)? Exposed corpses, just as open pit latrines, are a health hazard; they provide ready access to potentially infectious material AND provide food and breeding sites for vectors.

        Flies spread disease. Giving them access to corpses and feces facilitates the spread of disease and may spread infectious to previously unexposed populations.

        Corpses can spread pathogenic bacteria around their disposal sites, with improper disposal encouraging the spread of pathogenic bacteria:

        Pathogenic, and highly dangerous, strains of bacteria may be found at significant rates in a human population — 8.2% of corpses in this study from India tested positive for S. typhi:

        Greg, prompt, safe and sanitary handling and disposal of corpses prevents the spread of disease. It helps prevent infectious material from being spread around by insect or animal vector. It removes a valuable food source and breeding ground for said vectors. It helps prevent contamination of surface water. For many of the same reasons that prompt, safe and sanitary disposal of feces helps prevent the spread of disease.

        You’re wrong in this case, and the fellow whose work you’re reviewing deserves an apology.

        • gcochran9 says:

          High maternal mortality from puerperal fever, childbed fever, was transmitted from one case to another by doctors that didn’t wash their hands. Before doctors got involved in childbirth, it was rare. It had nothing to do with the number of corpses lying in the street.

          As Dave Chamberlain said, the Chicago stockyards had plenty of corpses lying around, flies too, but it didn’t devastate South Chicago.

          Every article in the medical literature saying the same thing is not a gold standard for proof, but it ought to make you wonder. And all the articles agree with what I said.

          • Fintan says:

            Greg, this is the historical basis of aseptic technique that you’re getting wrong. Semmelweis noted that puerperal fever was transmitted from cadavers to live patients. It does indeed have something to do with the number of corpses, in this case the corpses lying in the anatomy school.

            That’s kind of the point of hand-washing, as Semmelweis ordered doctors and medical students wash their hands with an antiseptic solution after handling cadavers. Again it does indeed have something to do with the number of corpses, maybe not lying in the street, but lying in the anatomy school or morgue definitely — with the help of a vector.

            Semmelweiss noted that without hand washing imposed between cadaver-handling and the maternity ward, that death from puerperal fever was above 15%, with hand washing between cadaver and mother, less than 1%.

            You’re working very, very hard to get the important details wrong. What’s the point you’re trying to make? It’s obviously not that cadavers are “safe” and not a source of infection, as that’s absurd and has been proven wrong time and again, so what are you stabbing in the general direction of?

          • Fintan says:

            “Cadavers are generally safe and not a source of infection.”

            Semmelweis proved that idea wrong 158 years ago.

            Prompt, sanitary disposal of cadavers helps prevent the spread of disease. Cadavers must be kept from fouling water supplies, they must be kept from animal or insect vectors. Humans that handle them must employ personal protection, and properly sanitize themselves afterwards, or else they risk contracting infections from the cadaver, and/or spreading infection to other people.

            • gcochran9 says:

              Childbed fever is usually caused by streptococcus pyogenes: it could be transmitted when obstetricians autopsied women that had died of childbed fever the day before. Those doctors, who never washed their hands, then infected their patients. This wouldn’t have been much of a risk with your generic autopsy: strep pyogenes is not a decay organism, doesn’t automatically show up in the dead.

              If women dying of childbed fever had simply been thrown out the window onto the sidewalk (and left there), rather than being autopsied, there would have been no transmission.

              We’re not talking about dangerous corpses: we’re talking about dangerous doctors. Iatrogenic.

              if people would refrain from eating corpses (actually you can usually get away with that), or cutting them open and soon afterwards delivering babies with unwashed hands – if they could just leave those corpses on the sidewalk, there would be very little disease risk. They just lie there.

              If you threw someone who died from cholera into a well, you might have trouble: but no more than from someone pooping into that well, and remember, living people poop many times before their deaths.

              As for fly amplification from corpses: you’d need a hell of a lot of bodies before it compared with flies originated from garbage and excrement. Do I believe that the body farm in Tennessee is a health threat to the area: that those flies from that acre and a a half spread out for miles and materially change the fly density in Knoxville? If dogs wore diapers, if every run-over squirrel was properly embalmed upon death, if no one ever lifted the lid of their garbage can – I still wouldn’t believe it.

          • Fintan says:

            “They just lie there.”

            No, they don’t Greg. I’ve been around my share of dead body scenes and worked with people who’ve been around a hell of a lot more. Outside of arctic or desert areas bodies left out tend to rapidly have some of their bodily fluids, solid waste, soft organs, and various and sundry bits spread over a surprisingly wide area by the action of dogs, cats, raccoons, birds, rodents, insects, and whatever other local scavengers can get access to the corpse. Worse yet if gutters or local water features are involved. Death is not dignified, nor sanitary, and it’s even less so when you let insects and animals have a go at grandma.

            Speaking of local scavengers, as an aside I once worked with a woman who had the singular pleasure of trying to chase down an opossum that had run off with the (left IIRC) eyeball of the suicide-by-hanging she was working on at the time. Fun times were had by all! Back on topic, I’ve seen what flies do to the area around a body after just 48-96 hours in a warm, humid environment; it’s a bit like someone took a paint-sprayer full of sewage and gave all the walls a lazy going-over. I’ve seen the fly-specks from such scenes, a little less dense the further you get from the body and the house/apartment, all around neighboring houses and apartments. 48 to 96 hours is well within the window of viability for a panoply of pathogens that spread via the fecal-oral route, and flies are very good at spreading feces and corpse-soup around your living spaces, food, and food prep surfaces.

            They really don’t just lie there Greg, parts of them are going to be painting the walls in short order, and those neighborhood cats and dogs that aren’t kept under lock and key are going to have to stop by the buffet as well, it’s one of those irresistible natural compulsions, like bacon. I’ve seen what Mr. Fluffy gets up to when he gets out of the house, you think about that the next time you see kids kissing dogs. People with a black sense of humor may have to resist a knowing smirk. But, hey, special place in hell for people that let their pets roam, ehh?

            Hell, welfare checks. You know, the old “Oh Mrs. Johnson/whatever hasn’t been down to pick up her mail in a week, and there’s a bad smell coming from her apartment/house/bedroom” business. When you crack open that door, in warm weather at least, invariably the flies start boiling out of the dark recesses of the charnel house like bats outta hell. In the warmer months there will often be a nice cloud of them, and they will leave bits of corpse and corpse-excrement and corpse-soup all over nearby surfaces for some time, and despite your un-cited protests to the contrary as a rule they are indeed carrying pathogenic strains of enterobacter on their legs and in their guts, as well as other goodies that may be present on the deceased.

            By the way, another aside, when conducting a welfare check it’s a good idea to ensure that the vehicle you arrived in is kept closed-up, doors and windows shut tight; you see ambulances and police cruisers aren’t just your convenient homes-away-from-home during a long shift, they’re also frequently your dinner table! Shooing grandma’s juicy flies away from your car door is never fun, nor is sponging the tiny specks of brown goo off your windows and door handles, but it’s more fun than having the little bastards buzzing in your face for the rest of the shift. Yummy.

            You see, upon death relaxation of a cadaver’s muscles tends to cause any immediately-pressing batch of waste to excrete out (or gas, on an entirely unrelated note, farting cadavers are very common). The action of gravity, gas-bloating, and putrefaction over the coming hours and days will tend to press out more waste, sometimes in a more semi-liquid or liquid state as time passes. Various species of flies quickly locate fresh human corpses, and quickly set up shop around said corpses, said corpse excretions, and the soft-gooey-bacterial-laden bits of fresh corpses. Speaking of which, very quickly flies are drawn to the soft mucosa around the eyes, nares and mouth of a deceased individual, for example, which is really an effective way to inoculate nearby surfaces with S. aureus.

            Some flies are drawn to the above-mentioned excreta and those tend to cluster around the crotch and buttocks area of the corpse’s clothing, as well as on any expanding mass of feces — dresses and at least partial nudity tend to make things far easier for the flies during the early hours of decomposition, as does some slight water runoff around the aft-end of the cadaver if there’s anything like a gutter or a puddle nearby — and those flies start leaving fly-specks of fresh(ish) fecal matter around the scene and neighboring dwellings VERY rapidly after death. This is the point where we start seeing various flavors and brands of S. enterica, E. coli, and similar spread outward from the corpse; all born aloft on the lovely and caring wings of our dear little angels, Musca domestica and friends (shout out to the blowflies, you know you love ’em). Speaking of which, in my admittedly small sample-size of personal experiences, the initial fly action in warm weather is truly amazing — maggots don’t start hatching until the better part of a day has passed in many cases, and flies don’t start maturing from those until somewhere around a week depending on temperature and species, which is why it’s really amazing how many adult flies can quickly find and swarm a fresh corpse. If the little bastards had central nervous systems significantly larger than a pinhead, I’d say they had social networking figured out; though I hear that kinda thing actually helps rather than hinders in some species.

            The dispersal-of-corpse-and-corpse-effluent situation can be exacerbated further by the action of scavengers. Said scavengers can sometimes be found tearing at clothing, which can allow easier access to the anus or genitalia for any resident flies; and scavengers that go for the soft organs (Mr. Fluffy, adorable family pit-labradoodle, I’m looking at you) tend to leave the intestines and colon well-exposed to flies, accelerating the spread of spy-flecks of fecal matter and intestional soup during those early days of decomposition. That’s beyond the action of scavengers themselves in spreading blood, bile, stomach contents and excreta — furry little omnivores are surprisingly good at whisking away bits and blobs of grandma on their fur, in their mouths and stomachs, and on their paws.

            Now, nearly 5% of the U.S. population carries C. diff, a good portion of the population carries various pathogenic strains S. enterica and other enterobacter, and S. aureus is more common than lying politicians. As mentioned in another post here, that one study in India found S. typhi in 8%+ of their cadavers. Your average, run of the mill cadaver carries a lot of pathogens under the best of circumstances. Even absent an ongoing epidemic, corpses can be the source of infectious material and nature is VERY good at getting that infectious material into your face.

            Improper handling and disposal of corpses is a public health hazard, just as improper handling and disposal of feces is a health hazard. For the many of the same reasons that you need to cover latrines, you need to ensure that corpses properly disposed of in a sanitary fashion (freeze ’em, salt ’em, jerk ’em, whatever). Unsurprisingly, a study linked earlier found that fly populations in slaughterhouses had pathogen loads almost as high as the fly populations around open-pit latrines. The action of water, animals, and insects can carry infectious material a good distance away from a corpse, just as they can carry infectious material a good distance away from an open latrine. See the work of one Mr. Reed in Cuba for more on that latter point.

            Corpses, and the improper handling and disposal of them, can indeed be sources of infection. Though you’re reluctant to admit how wrong you’ve been up to this point, you are giving a bit — you’re starting to admit in a roundabout fashion that you shouldn’t let corpses around your water supply, you’re starting to grudgingly admit that infectious diseases can be transferred from cadavers, you’re starting to admit that you don’t need to physically touch or eat the corpse yourself to contract a disease. If I keep this up into the new year, I might get you to eventually admit that you should keep corpses out of reach of insect and animal vectors.

            But, hey, I’m having too much fun. Tell me, how far down-gutter from the Ebola-victim should you tell your children to play? 5 feet? 10? Better be safe and aim for 15 before the little angels start splashing around? How about the cholera victim? The typhoid victim? Push it up to 20 feet with the fecal-oral pathogens just to be paranoid about it? What about the typhoid-carrier that was crushed to death, go back to 10 or 15 feet since he couldn’t have had THAT much S. typhi? It’s OK if the family dog helps himself to the juicy bits though, right? I mean, it saves money on dog food. It’s OK if we toss our typhoid victims in the Rat Temple right? I love it when the furry little dears run all over me when I sleep, don’t you? Oh, you say we’re usually OK eating corpses, so what are the dinner-table rules for digging into grandma? They vary by region/culture? How about the Ebola victim or the cholera and typhoid victims, do I need to use the fancy forks for them? Rare’s still fine as long as the outside is singed nicely, right? Should I say grace first, or is that potentially a little offensive to some parties? Are maggots kosher? And what if some dinner guests aren’t really into long pork? Could we just conveniently lay some vegetarian dishes next to the cadaver safely? I mean… the flies should add a little flavor, they’re are a bit like nature’s pepper shakers, aren’t they?

            • gcochran9 says:

              You’re full of it. You can say it over and over again with lots of enthusiasm, but you have no case. With a few exceptions like smallpox, pathogenic organisms don’t last long in a dead body. Decay organisms aren’t pathogenic. Having the rats and dogs eat them is unaesthetic, but that’s not going to affect human health. You may think so, but you’re wrong.

              I know about typhoid carriers: they’re dumping typhi into their stool, on and off, for the whole course of their infection. Can be decades. Do they become more dangerous in their last dump? No.

              Anyhow, assuming that you ever come up with some evidence, you should immediately inform the

              International Red Cross: ” Contrary to popular belief, dead bodies are a negligible health hazard.”
              World Health Organization:”the widespread belief that corpses pose a major health risk is inaccurate.”
              CDC:”The sight and smell of decay are unpleasant, but they do not create a public health hazard.”
              Pan-American Health Organization: “In Natural Disasters, Cadavers Pose No Threat of Disease.”

              I’m sure they’ll be happy to hear from you.

    • Kate says:

      “just as prompt and sanitary disposal of feces prevents the spread of disease. ”

      slighty ot but I don’t often get the chance to mention this and it has fascinated me these past years – in about 2000 I attended a soil science conference and one speaker said that if we separated solid waste and took it away and dessicated it then the liquid waste would be easily disoposed of. what in fact we do is contaminate billions of gallons of easy to purify/disperse liquid waste with toxic solid waste and then have to deal with the culturally-induced health hazard. but the task of changing toilet systems or cultural systems seems to be too great – if indeed the man was on to something.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      “Basic sanitation saves lives! It is not in my head.”

      You are right but what is basic sanitation. It is providing clean water and removal of sewage. Back in the good old days cities stunk something awful, but that didn’t hurt you. The Chicago stockyards closed forty years ago, in a major metropolitan area one billion animals were killed and butchered. The whole south side of Chicago smelled rotten for decades. It was a low rent district but it didn’t kill anyone.

      However, screw logic. If something is dead and rotting and I smell it, color me gone.

      • Fintan says:

        “It is providing clean water and removal of sewage.” Not only, no. That’s important. But…

        “…in a major metropolitan area one billion animals were killed and butchered.”

        Take a look at this study of housefly-born parasites in Nigeria. Abatoirs were almost as bad as latrines as far as disease-bearing fly populations are concerned:

        Click to access article1379690476_Oghale%20et%20al.pdf

        In this study slaughter-houses produced insects with almost as high of a parasite load as pit latrines did. Basic sanitation is pretty simple, but even people in the first world like to get it wrong a lot: wash your hands, don’t shit where you eat, don’t foul your water supplies, cover your excrement, cook your food and drink well, and don’t be cavalier with corpses.

        In the 19-teens in Chicago infant mortality rates were pushing 30%, your billions of animals being slaughtered? They played a part in that.

        • dave chamberlin says:

          I don’t know why
          people hate the fly
          I don’t mind him a bit
          he eats our garbage and shit

          But it’s hard to refute
          his babies aren’t too cute
          But he didn’t make what he must eat
          we were the ones who left it by the street

        • dave chamberlin says:

          OK, seriously this time. I doubt your cause effect argument regarding disease bearing flies. In the last thirty years there has been a great reduction in the number of flies in cities. Thirty years ago there wasn’t wide use of garbage bags and there weren’t huge plastic bins that garbage trucks picked up automatically. What there was were the good old garbage cans and that sat outside and they were a wonderful food source for flies and rats. The infant mortality rate of 30% you speak of dropped way before the fly population did. Before 1900 cities were population sinks and country living was healthy. Farm animals have always supported huge fly populations. Now of course there are exceptions in disease and in some of the circumstances you have so graphically described, however, modern medicine gets 99% of the credit for reduced mortality rates. Of course nothing good can come from flies crawling all over the food you are about to eat, and of course Granny rotting away in the back bedroom can cause medical problems, but I think if you choose to live with either situation you have bigger problems than increased heath risk.

          • gcochran9 says:

            They didn’t close the Chicago stockyards until 1971, but infant mortality dropped well before then. it is lower yet today, but most of that drop has been caused by improvements in stuff other than typhoid – technical advances in neonatal medicine, better dealing with preemies ( artificial pulmonary surfactant) and low-birthweight infants. SIDS decreased in the 90s because doctors reversed their bad advice about putting babies on their stomachs.. Etc.

      • cassander says:

        Back in the good old days cities stunk something awful, but that didn’t hurt you.

        it most certainly did. prior to the 19th century, most urban populations had death rates in significant excess of births. cities only survived is people consistently immigrated to them in substantial numbers.

  5. MawBTS says:

    but if you just walk past the corpse and refrain from playing with it

    Stop telling me what to do.

  6. Patrick Boyle says:

    It’s odd timing for you to write about the harmlessness of care for the dead at a time when we have a disease emerging that seems to be the great exception . A large proportion of those who have contracted Ebola have done so because they handled the body after death. Had they instead had the custom of immediate burial we may never have heard of this particular bug.

    • gcochran9 says:

      For the most part, this blog operates beyond time and space. If you left an Ebola victim where he fell, his body would infect no one. But washing the body, kissing it – that’s a bad mistake.

      The question came up in a discussion of the health advantages flowing from a certain set of traditional practices. It seems to me that they were generally useless.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        “It seems to me that they were generally useless.”

        Perhaps, but, when looking at traditional practices, that’s usually not the way to bet. There’s usually some reason for things, other than “people back then were just stupid”.We always have to remember that the limits of our imaginations are not the limits of reality.

  7. georgesdelatour says:

    I’m sure I’ve read that the early deaths of the Brontë sisters – notably Emily – were connected with the unsanitary conditions of the local graveyard. No doubt there were other factors.

  8. panjoomby says:

    Dr. Cochran is correct. indeed, the US has 5 “body farms” where dead bodies are strewn about & studied (1 of those sites may use pigs as proxies, but at least 4 of them use decaying humans). all provide good science & you can be a neighbor to such & be fine.
    e.g., see
    or the article on page 16 at
    or even

    • Fintan says:

      I’m familiar with the body farm in Tennessee. I’d advise you to frequent some of the local diners around the Knoxville area — if you have some sense you’ll be noting the heavy fly population in the summer months. Totally unrelated, I’m sure, but the Knoxville area tends to have much-higher-than-national averages of a number of food borne illnesses that are easily transmitted by flies.

      Hell, back in 2008 Knoxville alone accounted for more than a third of the state’s Shigellosis cases, and the state had more than twice the national average of infections. A number of the studies I linked up there, if the posts ever get out of moderation, mention Shigella transmission via flies. The national average for Shigellosis is less than 10 per 100,000 for most of the last fifty years, yet Knoxville is running in the 40-80 per 100,000 range during some of its cyclical outbreaks.

      It’s almost as if flies spread diseases, and giving them lots of food and breeding grounds (as well as access to plenty of bacteria-laden filth) encourages the spread of disease. But I’m assured that can’t be the case.

  9. Jim says:

    Were there a lot of dead bodies lying around after the Haitian earthquake? What happened there.

    • Andrew Ryan says:

      I hope you’re not referring to the Cholera epidemic? That was brought by UN workers from Asia dumping their feces into streaks used for drinking water, not from unburied corpses.

      Ignore if you were making a different point.

      With regards to pathogens surviving poorly outside the host, that is generally true but a major exception would be spore-forming bacteria, that cause diseases such as Anthrax or C. difficile diarrhea–these organisms survive for inordinate amounts of time outside the host, as they are in a metabolically inactive, highly resistant state. Some parasites that encyst would fall into this category. Viruses, such as Ebola,s are at the other end of the spectrum, they lose infectivity quite rapidly but there’s exceptions there as well (i.e. Norovirus).

      • Jim says:

        No, I was not referring to the cholera epidemic. I was just thinking that Haiti after the earthquake might have been a test case with a lot of dead bodies lying about for a while. So I was wondering if this was the case and what if any health effects this had.

  10. Campesino says:

    In a number of prehistoric and protohistoric Native American cultures in eastern North America, bodies of the dead (at least of the high status people) were placed in special charnel houses where they were allowed to decompose. After the flesh was gone, the bones were tied up in a cloth bundle. The bundles were kept around for a while, often in temples and other high status structures for the magic power that they still contained.

    After a period of time, they were ritually buried and these “bundle burials” are not uncommon in that part of the continent.

    So, they went the other direction and actually planned on leaving lots of bodies lying around, to no apparent ill effect

    Of course, that leaves aside the whole “sky burial” ritual that seems so common in Central Asia and parts of India.

    • Harold says:

      From wikipedia:

      “Zoroastrian tradition considers a dead body—in addition to cut hair and nail-parings—to be nasu, unclean, i.e. potential pollutants. Specifically, the corpse demon (Avestan: nasu.daeva) was believed to rush into the body and contaminate everything it came into contact with, hence the Vendidad (an ecclesiastical code “given against the demons”) has rules for disposing of the dead as “safely” as possible.

      To preclude the pollution of earth or fire (see Zam and Atar respectively), the bodies of the dead are placed atop a dakhma and so exposed to the sun and to scavenging birds. Thus, “putrefaction with all its concomitant evils… is most effectually prevented.””

      But according to Greg there are no corpse demons.

  11. Diablos says:

    So Cochran… Cremation vs Inhumation?

  12. Sean says:

    Jerry Ahearn’s pulp post apocalyptic Survivalist went to a lot of trouble to bury bodies in the area of his secret hideout. Must have been a reason.

    Seems it have heard of anthrax spoors sticking around in old graves. If you had a infected body lying around decomposing, might there not be a danger of inhalation anthrax? And wouldn’t burning risk putting spoors in the air?

  13. Hereward says:

    The association of unburied corpses with disease is presumably a legacy of the miasma theory of contagion.

  14. melendwyr says:

    We’re repelled by rotting tissue, as well as fecal matter, presumably because these things posed health risks to our ancestors. Lots of other creatures are indifferent or even attracted to carrion, as it’s a potential food source, but non-scavengers are generally repelled by it. Wolves, for example, won’t eat found corpses or roadkill. Bears will often pass by dead animals that they didn’t kill – thus why ‘playing dead’ works. Animals that live in groups or packs often have an instinct to get as far away from other members of their species if they’re seriously sick or injured – and the explanation I’ve always heard is that this minimizes the risk of spreading diseases or parasites.

    The claim that decaying corpses have no serious health consequences seems as ridiculous as the idea that parasites can’t cause serious harm to their hosts.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Well, if we were talking about eating corpses, you might have a point.

      • Harold says:

        The smell of a rotting corpse is so repulsive to humans they can’t abide even being near one for long. The smell is so repulsive it even induces vomitting. Such a strong response evolved merely to prevent us from eating it? I suppose the strong response to highly decomposed flesh might be a sort of super-stimulus of a distaste for even slightly decomposed flesh. The inducement to vomit would actually fit with the response having evolved to prevent ingestion. Still, the message sent by the senses to the brain when exposed to a rotting corpse seems to me to be “keep away! keep away!”

        • Arguably, this very response makes Greg’s point. Giant chasms and bonfires are potentially very dangerous to crazy and stupid people, but almost nobody will hurl themselves in on a whim. I’m not convinced burial practices don’t make a difference, but whatever difference they make would need to be above and beyond the very basic human instincts you’re bringing up.

        • ursiform says:

          It’s not only human corpses that smell when they rot. So yes, the revulsion tells us to stay away from rotting meat.

          Greg isn’t saying corpses are utterly safe. He’s saying that if you don’t get too personal with them they aren’t very dangerous.

  15. Jim Blimm says:

    Wow. Next time a loved one kicks it, I think I’ll just leave the corpse lying around for a good while. ‘Cause why not?

    • MawBTS says:

      There’s been loads of cases of people (usually old ones) living on their own, dying, and nobody finds the body for weeks or months. (anyone remember that site?) documented an instance of 90 year old man having a bath with some sort of large heating element to keep the water warm. He died, but the element never shut off, so he was lying in bathtub full of near-boiling water for two weeks. They ended up having to scoop his remains out with a ladle.

  16. JIm says:

    Do scavengers such as vultures show any special adaptions of their immune systems that might be attributed to their diet?

    • Timtoc says:

      I have spoken with a doctor who did field work with Komodo Dragons who have an adaptation to protect them from the virulent Pasteurella that causes sepsis in their prey. She said the Dragons had a special protein that protected them from the bites of other Dragons.

      • gcochran9 says:

        They have venom: the idea that they carried dangerous germs in their bite as a strategy was wrong.

        • Sean says:

          “The Turkey Vulture can often be seen along roadsides feeding on roadkill, or near bodies of water, feeding on washed-up fish. It also will feed on fish or insects that have become stranded in shallow water. Like other vultures, it plays an important role in the ecosystem by disposing of carrion that would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease.”

          Turkey Vultures can stay healthy eating the carcasses of animals that have died from diseases such as cholera or anthrax. They are quite long lived birds

          “The bacteria, fungal agents and parasites found in turkey vulture droppings and nests can carry a host of serious diseases, including histoplasmosis, encephalitis, salmonella, meningitis, toxoplasmosis and more”.

      • Richard Sharpe says:

        They have venom: the idea that they carried dangerous germs in their bite as a strategy was wrong.


        Turns out a related species has venom as well.

  17. a very knowing American says:

    I’m just glad I don’t have a dog in this fight.

  18. ziel says:

    As a mild insomniac who watches too much late night Science channel, I’ve been puzzled by a paradox: Animals frantically drinking from putrid water holes during the onset of a drought, and the admonitions of Survivormen to at all costs avoid drinking from pretty much any water source outside of a frigid mountain stream as it will lead to almost certain death (due to animal contamination).

    Why are humans so fragile compared to other mammals?

    • Anonymous says:

      Local humans drink the same water as animals do. It’s the Western survivormen who are too fragile.

    • melendwyr says:

      It’s common advice for people traveling to foreign countries not to drink the local water, even as ice in alcoholic beverages, because modern water treatment means they’ll lack antibodies to common contaminating bacteria. The locals, however, can drink the stuff without harm, because they’ve been drinking it their entire lives.

      Animals are more resistant to bacterial contamination than humans, but there’s usually more to the story.

  19. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    I see dead people everywhere!

  20. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    Speaking of Zombies, John Ringo has a book out, Under a Graveyard Sky, where an unnamed malefactor or more, created a virus that contained both Influenza and some sort of Rhabdovirus (Rabies), and that both were replicated.

    The rabies-like virus was the zombification element. He got a bunch of things wrong, though, and I suspect that turning up the effects of that virus recently found would do a better job.

    • Richard Sharpe says:

      Could you elaborate on what you think he got wrong?

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        Well, he confuses the common cold with Influenza. Then he talks about the dual virus being a combination DNA and RNA virus, but finally settles on something that is a pair of RNA viruses.

        Then he calls it something like H5D7 and never explains what the D is. Finally, eliminating Neurominidase from the virus is eliminating (or at least vastly reducing) its ability to bud, if you know anything about Influenza.

    • j says:

      Having led us into the realm of the zombies, it is imperative we should mention the Goa’uld parasites. These critters reside in a human host and immediately after the death of host, they must exit and find fast a new (living) host. Corpses of persons parasited by Goa’uld are the only exception to Prof. Cochrane’s rule and are decidedly dangerous.

  21. says:

    Yeah, but if you accidentally spill whiskey on a corpse, there’s a chance it may come back to life and join the festivities, at which point some tedious literary man will turn the deceased’s death and resurrection into either a folk song or an impenetrable novel consisting entirely of bad puns. Is that a risk we want to take? Better to get it buried quickly where it’s safe from the risk of accidental intoxication.

    (True story: my great-great-grandmother was at an Irish wake where the inebriated dancers shook the floor so hard that the coffin fell off of the sawhorses on which it had been perched, struck the floor, and ejected the body into the crowd of mourners).

    “In the past, it may have been a good idea to bury people quickly, so as not to encourage a taste for human flesh in local predators, but that’s a somewhat indirect risk.”

    It’s been a while since I read Patterson’s account, but isn’t that what probably got the Tsavo man-eaters lions started?

  22. IC says:

    Fearful of dead: evolutional emotion.

  23. Sean says:

    Jeffrey Scott of Cornell University says there is a debate about whether flies can spread Ebola.

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