The care with which our dead are treated is a mark of how civilized a society we are. Charles Haddon-Cave.

The recent flash flood, cloudbursts, and landslides on 16th and 17th June in five districts of Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Pithoragarh and Tehri of Uttarakhand State of India poses a serious question about our preparedness to deal with mass fatality in India. We do not know the exact figure of death toll but it is estimated that minimum 1,000 - 5,000 people may have lost their lives in this natural disaster. There has been no official assessment yet but unofficial estimates indicated that the death toll might rise manifold. It will be only known after improvement in weather conditions and debris clearance.

Natural disasters and calamities are not new in India. In the earthquake resulting in the Tsunami in 26th December 2004, almost 11,000 people died and over 5,000 are missing and feared dead (Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India). This raises a serious issue related to management and cremation of dead bodies. Management of the dead bodies in a proper and dignified manner is one of the most difficult aspects of disaster response which is also related to management of recovered bodies, their identification, storage and disposal of dead bodies. Despite several disasters and large number of deaths, the government of India is not having a policy or plan for mass cremation or fatality infrastructure preparedness plans for the management and cremation of dead bodies.

In a recent Uttarakhand disaster, the government is facing the challenge of the disposal of hundreds of corpses. If it is not handled properly, there may be an epidemic outbreak leading to more death in the already ravaged hills. Interestingly, in the absence of policy and plan to manage the death bodies, as an emergency measure, the government is consulting the holy men regarding mass cremation and proper ritual. The corpses have been lying for days, some since June 16, out in the sun and rain, and in an advanced stage of decay and decomposition. It is unfortunate that it is more than a week and still bodies are waiting for cremation due to lack of preparedness, unavailability of woods and bad weather. Now the government is sending the forensic teams for taking pictures of bodies and DNA samples.

It is sad that, after the disaster, the Central and the State government are finalising the standard operating procedures for identification and cremation of the bodies, which should be done much before after the 2004 tsunami in which 11,000 people died. It is a high time and the government should learn from this disaster and prepare a mass fatality infrastructure preparedness policy. The policy should focus on operational procedures for body recovery; storage of bodies; body identification and medico-legal investigation protocol; funeral services and final disposition of mass fatalities; and providing family assistance. Considering that India is multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, in disposing of bodies, ethnic and religious sensitivities should be maintained and addressed appropriately. The government should realise and understand that inadequate capacity to deal with dead bodies may affect the psychological well-being of survivors which may result in distress to families, community; and it may lead to another epidemic.