Management of the Deceased
in Radiation Emergencies

Adapted from Guidelines for Handling Decedents Contaminated with Radioactive Materials (PDF - 1.40 MB) (HHS/CDC, April 2007)

Deceased Persons with Exposure to Radiation but No Contamination

  • No radiation-specific precautions are needed.
  • Use standard autopsy procedures.

top of page

Survey Equipment Used to Check Bodies for Contamination

  • Directional probes are preferred when checking bodies for contamination
  • Use of directional probes helps to ensure that the measured radiation is from the surface being checked

top of page

Handling of the Deceased

  • In a radiological/nuclear event, radioactive materials may contaminate the deceased.
  • Evaluating the deceased with appropriate radiation survey meters can confirm or rule out contamination. Advice from a health physicist would be useful.
  • Type of event may dictate timing of handling the deceased
    • If cause of death secondary to nuclear weapon detonation: consider delaying recovery of remains for 1-2 days to allow decay of fission products.
    • If cause of death secondary to explosive radiological dispersal device (RDD) (aka "Dirty Bomb"): no benefit to delaying recovery of remains.
  • If the deceased is known or suspected to be contaminated, personnel engaged in handling of the body should be issued personal protective equipment (PPE) and a personal dosimeter.
  • All persons coming into contact with the deceased should be aware that other, more acutely hazardous agents, may be present.
    • Non-radiological contaminant hazards (e.g., chemical agents) may pose more significant risks to health and safety of persons handling the body.
    • Non-radiological contaminant hazards (e.g., chemical agents) may necessitate use of higher levels of PPE.
  • Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Teams (DMORTs) from HHS/NDMS may be available to assist

top of page

Field Morgue Procedures

  • Conduct radiation survey of each body coming into field morgue using a radiation survey meter and probe (see above) sweeping 1 inch away from the body surface
    • Decedents without measurable levels of external contamination
      • Confirm absence of contamination by conducting complete radiation survey of the body
      • Transport body directly to city morgue or to uncontaminated field morgue following complete radiation survey
    • Decedents with measurable levels of contamination
      • <100 millirem/hour: may be processed in field morgue
        • Remove and safely store radioactive shrapnel ASAP
        • Conduct forensic examination and victim identification
        • Decontaminate decedent prior to release of body
      • >100 millirem/hour: move to a refrigeration unit
        • Storage of bodies reading >100 mrem/hr will help ensure safety of morgue staff
        • Refrigerator should be at least 30 feet away from work area
        • Radiation Safety Officer or health physicist will help determine how long to store the body based on rate of decay of fission products
    • Release decedents with internal contamination to funeral home
      • Label body with dose rate, distance of probe, date & time

top of page

Autopsies of Contaminated Patients

  • Do not autopsy internally contaminated bodies unless absolutely necessary.
  • Pathologist performing the autopsy may receive significant radiation dose to the hands.
  • If autopsy is absolutely necessary, refrigerate decedent and defer the procedure until a health physicist can assist in planning.

top of page

Embalming and Funeral Home Guidelines

  • Embalming guidelines
    • Embalming increases radiation dose to funeral home staff.
    • Avoid embalming or working near decedents with unknown dose rates.
    • Minimize radiation dose to funeral home staff by burying decedents without embalming whenever possible.
    • Embalming is necessary if decedent to be shipped by common carrier or if there is to be open-casket funeral service with a viewing.
    • Body fluids may be drained into the sewer.
  • Funeral home guidelines
    • Funeral home directors may reject radioactively contaminated decedents not properly decontaminated (i.e., with loose surface contamination or shrapnel).
    • Encourage rapid burial of internally contaminated decedents; encourage conducting a memorial service without the body to minimize radiation dose to mourners and funeral home staff.
    • Special family circumstances (emotional, religious, cultural) may dictate conduct of funeral service with the body present.
      • Family/friends in close contact with the decedent are at risk for contamination and/or exposure.
      • Encourage family/friends to minimize time with and increase distance from the decedent.
      • Closed-casket funeral or cordon around open casket can help minimize risk of contamination or exposure.
      • Potential contamination/exposure risk is small but not zero.

top of page

Cremation of Contaminated Patients

  • Do not cremate internally contaminated decedents.
    • Radioactive contamination of the facility and environment is highly likely.

top of page


  • Burial of a body with internal contamination constitutes only minimal health risk to humans or the environment.
    • Minimizing release of radioactive material into the environment is good practice, even if the amounts are very small.
  • Coffin/casket types
    • Wooden coffin/casket
      • Not sealed against elements entering or exiting the container
      • Use should be avoided
    • Metal coffin/casket
      • Preferred
      • Has a seal that releases pressure from inside the casket and retards entry of ground water
  • Vaults are used to encase the metal casket
    • May be metal or concrete
    • Optimizing a tight seal is key to effective vault use.
    • For dose rates measured on vault exterior >100 counts per minute (cpm) above background or greater than twice background: bury casket and vault in ground and not above ground.
    • Affix discrete radiation warning label to exterior of vault indicating dose rate from buried decedent and date/time of measurement.

top of page

Shipping Contaminated Remains

  • Common carriers may reject radioactively contaminated decedents not properly decontaminated (i.e., with loose surface contamination or shrapnel).
  • Ship decedents in a sealed shipping container to prevent release of radioactive material into the environment.
  • Label outside of container in accordance with 49 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 172.

top of page


  1. Page content adapted from Guidelines for Handling Decedents Contaminated with Radioactive Materials (PDF - 1.40 MB), Charles M. Wood, Frank DePaolo, R. Doggett Whitaker (HHS/CDC, April 2007)
  2. Mass Fatality Management for Incidents Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction (DOD, 2005)
  3. Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams (DMORTs, HHS/ASPR)
  4. Management of Dead Bodies after Disasters: a Field Manual for First Responders (About mass casualty situations but not radiation issues specifically) (PDF - 989 KB) (PAHO, WHO, ICRC, IFRCRCS, 2006)
  5. Mortuary Affairs in Joint Operations, Joint Publication 4-06 (PDF - 2.47 MB) (DOD, 2006)
  6. Management of Persons Contaminated With Radionuclides: Handbook (NCRP Report No. 161, Volume I), National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, Bethesda, MD, 2008. (See Chapter 14: Contaminated Decedents (hospital and mortuary))
  7. Responding to a Radiological or Nuclear Terrorism Incident: A Guide for Decision Makers (PDF - 1.61 MB) (NCRP Report No. 165), National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, Bethesda, MD, January 2010. See Section 7.10, "Handling Contaminated Deceased Persons", pages 112-115.
  8. Medical Examiner / Coroner Guidance on Handling of a Body/Human Remains that are Potentially Radiologically Contaminated (PDF - 757 KB) (DOE/TEPP)
  9. Hanzlick R, Nolte K, deJong J; National Association of Medical Examiners Bioterrorism and Infectious Disease Committee. The Medical Examiner/Coroner's Guide for Contaminated Deceased Body Management. Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 2009 Dec;30(4):327-38. [PubMed Citation]