Frazer Blog

Can the dead spread disease?

by | Jul 8, 2016 | For Families, Funeral Profession

A woman wearing a surgical mask

Funeral professionals practice personal safety whenever they deal directly with the deceased, but that’s never more important than in the case of infectious diseases.

In many cases, even after a person dies, the infectious disease they were afflicted with remains a threat to anyone who comes into contact with them. So what are the risks associated with caring for those who have passed away, and what can you do to protect yourself?

Obviously, a big factor in how to handle a body is the type of disease that the deceased was afflicted with. Not all infectious diseases are fatal; the common cold may be common, but it is typically only fatal in the cases of people with compromised immune systems, while Ebola, though rare in America, only has a survival rate of around 10%.

The first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. was Thomas Eric Duncan, who died in Dallas. After his death, healthcare workers and morticians followed a procedure in place by the CDC regarding what to do with the remains.

The hospital staff takes care of most of the postmortem care, but when a mortuary or funeral home in the U.S. receives the body, they have their own instructions:

  • The bag the body comes in cannot be opened for any reason.
  • The body cannot be embalmed or autopsied, and no medical devices (intravenous tubes, pacemakers, etc.) can be removed.
  • The bag and body are to be cremated together. This may require an oversized retort.
  • If for some reason cremation is not possible, either for safety reasons (if the person has a pacemaker, you would not be able to remove it, and thus cremation would not be feasible) or for religious reasons, you would have to put them in a metal casket.
  • After cremation, the remains can be returned to the family, as cremated remains are no longer infectious. A metal casket containing the bagged remains also can be handled without personal protective equipment (PPE).

The reason these standards are in place is that viruses still can be spread by a dead body through laceration or puncture with contaminated instruments such as needles or scalpels; through direct handling of human remains without PPE; or through splashes of contaminated bodily fluid to a person’s eyes, nose, or mouth.

Though the procedure is similar for other infectious diseases, there are some minor changes to how thorough everything must be. With Ebola, none of the medical devices can be removed because of the risk of exposure, but that is not usually the case.

In all cases of infectious disease, though, morticians are expected to wear full PPE. Below are some of the most fatal infectious diseases around the world:

  • HIV/AIDS. Global deaths: 1.6 million. Deaths in the U.S.: 13,712.
    • Those who typically die from HIV/AIDS die from a common infection that the compromised immune system cannot defend.
  • Tuberculosis. Global deaths: 1.3 million. Deaths in the U.S.: 555.
  • Pneumonia. Global deaths: 1.1 million. Deaths in the U.S.: 53,282.
    • Pneumonia is most often deadly for young children and the geriatric population, but that is not always the case.
  • Infectious Diarrhea. Global deaths: 760,000. Deaths in the U.S.: N/A
    • This disease, which mostly affects children under the age of 5, is commonly found in countries where children have limited access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.
    • It is not typically an issue for children in the U.S. because of access to clean water and vaccines.
  • Malaria. Global deaths: 627,000. Deaths in the U.S.: N/A
    • Malaria was eliminated from the U.S. in the early 1950s, and the only cases diagnosed in the U.S. are recent travelers to countries with malaria or individuals who have been bitten by mosquitoes who bit these travelers.

The bottom line is that if your funeral home receives the body of someone who has died from an infectious disease, extra precautions should be taken. If you are unsure of acceptable procedures, it is best to contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directly to ask for further instruction.


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