Skip to main content

Why bringing bodies home matters

By Gerard Jacobs
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
A line of hearses arrives at the Korporaal van Oudheusdenkazerne in Hilversum, Netherlands, on Saturday, July 26, as bodies from the crash of Malaysia Flight 17 are brought to the Netherlands where they will be identified. Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard. Of the people who died, 193 were Dutch citizens. A line of hearses arrives at the Korporaal van Oudheusdenkazerne in Hilversum, Netherlands, on Saturday, July 26, as bodies from the crash of Malaysia Flight 17 are brought to the Netherlands where they will be identified. Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard. Of the people who died, 193 were Dutch citizens.
HIDE CAPTION
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
MH17 victims' bodies transported
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gerard Jacobs: Some don't get why recovery of loved one's body so important to families
  • He says cultures and family units have long needed rituals to process a death, give comfort
  • He says not recovering body complicates grieving process. Mass deaths make it worse
  • Jacobs: Grief makes Americans uncomfortable But grieving not mental illness, it's human

Editor's note: Gerard Jacobs is a professor of psychology and the director of the Disaster Mental Health Institute at the University of South Dakota. He has worked in many mass casualty disasters both nationally and internationally, and received the American Psychological Association's International Humanitarian Award in 2007.

(CNN) -- People sometimes have difficulty understanding why the families of those who die in disasters are so invested in the recovery of their loved ones' bodies. This painful process has been once again brought into sharp relief by the difficulty of retrieving the bodies of those lost in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Ukrainian rebels who control the crash site.

The International Committee of the Red Cross notes that international humanitarian law requires combatants to respect the bodies of those who die in conflict, reflecting the importance people attach to the bodies of their loved ones.

Gerard Jacobs
Gerard Jacobs

Throughout history, most cultures have emphasized the management of the bodies of the deceased. Indeed, cultures around the world (and religions are a part of one's culture) still observe different, important, traditions for what happens with human remains, most commonly ranging from burial to various forms of cremation.

Grieving families often are eager to perform their traditional rituals for the remains of their loved ones, a process that can bring some level of comfort.

But in the early stages of mass casualty disasters, families often share the experience of grief with other families whose loved ones have died, sometimes joining together in a family assistance center to await news of their loved ones and the identification of the remains.

After day of tributes, more remains of victims to arrive in Netherlands

It is when the remains of their loved ones are returned to the family that the more personal experience of the death tends to begin. Families will generally leave the family assistance center and return to their homes to grieve with their extended families and friends. While many funerary rituals can be performed without a body, knowing the exact disposition of the loved ones' remains is often a crucial comfort to the family.

The death of a loved one can of course be devastating, even if that person is the only one to die in an incident. But disaster mental health professionals know that mass casualty disasters are much more difficult for families than disasters in which only a few people die. It isn't clear why, but the old adage that misery loves company does not seem to apply to mass casualty disasters.

As stressful as mass casualty incidents are, however, responders generally know to expect an even more stressful disaster if it is an incident in which body recovery is likely to be very difficult or even impossible.

The recent disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is a classic example. Without knowing even the location of the downed aircraft, the recovery of the remains of the passengers and crew becomes more unlikely with each passing day. This is likely to complicate the grieving process for the survivors.

Traditional cultural rituals for the dead help us to process grief in a meaningful way. Grief isn't magically resolved through these rituals, but it is one step in the process of building a new life without the presence of the loved one.

What happens to the victims' bodies next?

Dutch honor MH17 passengers
First MH17 bodies arrive in Netherlands
MH17 grief hits the Netherlands hard

The emphasis on the return of the bodies of loved ones to their families is also reflected in the efforts of government officials. Many times rescue and recovery personnel place their own lives at risk as they try to return bodies. Underwater recoveries such as the crash of Flight 800 in 1996, for example, present extreme challenges to the recovery teams.

Similarly, in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, thousands of personnel worked in difficult and dangerous efforts to recover the remains of those who died. Some who worked in these recovery efforts have told me that the work was extremely dangerous, but that it was worth it to help the families as they grieved.

Similarly, personnel working in mass casualty morgues have often asked me to tell the families of the deceased how respectfully the remains of their loved ones were treated.

Within mainstream American culture, people often seem uncomfortable with the grieving process. Individuals coping with the death of a loved one are often told to "get over it" or "move on." But even in ideal situations, the grieving process may continue for a year or more in healthy individuals, and periods of grief may continue to occur for years.

Some moment may trigger a memory of the loved one who died and lead to a reawakening of the grief. This is not a sign of psychopathology, but of being human.

The most helpful process in dealing with grief seems to be talking with family, friends and spiritual leaders. It is also useful to understand that you don't have to be mentally ill to seek support from a mental health professional. This may be particularly useful if family and friends don't seem to understand or appreciate the grief one is experiencing.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT