The disposal of human remains by the US Air Force

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You’ve heard about this: The US Air Force, at Dover, has incinerated “partial remains” of nearly 300 American troops, and had the ashes carted off with medical waste to the landfill. If you have heard of this, you’ve also heard the indignation, the loathing, the accusations of inhumanity, and the verbal rending of cloth. If you have been observing this, have you also noticed how everybody has it wrong?

I will probably get in huge trouble for this blog post. But, so it goes. But do have the sense before you attempt to tear me a new one that I do have a set of valid questions, and a rational argument, and that I’m perfectly happy to understand that people can be wrong about this much like how they can be wrong about going to church on Sunday or praying for a better life or buying a lottery ticket. I don’t expect people to make sense in everything they do.

It is hard to tell exactly what has happened from the news reports so far. To establish some perspective, I’d like to lay out the following possibilities:

1) The body of a US soldier, found dead on the battle field, is brought to Dover along with the other bodies collected around that time. This particular body is then incinerated without checking with the family first, and the ashes are dumped in with other incinerated medical waste. The collection of ashes is then shipped off to whatever facility is used to dispose of this sort of waste.

2) An ear, or something that might be an ear, probably but not necessarily of a human, all burned up, is found among the dead and wounded at a battle site in Afghanistan. It is put in a bag which is in turn stashed in a body bag with a mostly but not entirely complete body of a soldier. The whole mess is shipped back to Dover. All of the remains that came in that day are sorted out. Most are just bodies, or at least, 90% or so of a body, and they are identified. There are a few other body parts; A hand here, a foot there, and they are matched up with the mostly whole bodies and stored with them. Those remains will be sent to the families. But when that is all done, there is still this thing that may or may not be a human ear, and maybe a few other bits. Those bits are put in with the medical waste and incinerated, the ashes shipped off to the usual facility.

3) Something, you tell me, in between scenarios 1 and 2.

Scenario number 1 did not happen. There were no “bodies” per se incinerated and sent to the dump. Nobody’s son or daughter’s body was mixed in with medical trash. Scenario number 3 almost certainly happened. The personnel at Dover did what they could, and there were some bits left that could not be further sorted out to any reasonable degree of accuracy.

If that is true, that is bad. But not that bad. The normal procedure should probably be to put all the human-like parts which may or may not be human in some place where you can say later that you did something special with them. In a hole at a military cometary, labeled “Grave of the various bits and pieces” or words to that effect. Perhaps saying it in Latin will make it seem less like what it is: A futile effort to impose one of a subset of burial traditions on what might be a fragment of a ferret or might be a misidentified burned up mushroom or might be a part of an actual soldier, but not even clearly of one nation’s army or another’s, let alone of a particular named individual.

There have been times in war where large numbers of bodies were left on the battlefield to rot. Bodies have been bulldozed into big holes and later randomly distributed among smaller graves on which markers are placed, giving the impression that individuals were sorted out. There have been bodies buried under a grave stone, labeled correctly to match the body, but where this or that body part is actually from some other body, which in turn is also buried with a part or two missing or replaced with a bit from another corpse. And so on.

In one report on this story, we hear the following:

The Air Force said it first cremated the remains and then included those ashes in larger loads of mortuary medical waste that were burned in an incinerator and taken to a landfill. Incinerating medical waste is a common disposal practice but including cremated human ashes is not, according to funeral home directors, regulators and waste haulers.

Oh really? Funeral directors in the united states don’t send their miscellaneous body parts they end up with at the end of the day off in the trash? Could that be because they generally handle one body at a time, and most funeral directors will go an entire career without having to worry about matching battlefield remains with ID tags? Are waste haulers really experts on this? Regulators? Regulators of what?

I have no problem with saying that the Air Force has been doing it wrong, but I am very unimpressed by the indignation and rending of cloth that typically goes along with this story. Listen: Our sons and daughters have been getting blown to bits, along with their Iraqi and Afghan allies and enemies, for years now. Be indignant about that. Not about some burned up piece of tissue that may or may not be someone’s ear lobe. Or a mushroom.

In the end, the Air Force will start to dump the incinerated remains of the orts and bits into the sea instead of into an approved landfill. I wonder what the “Regulators” think of that?


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8 thoughts on “The disposal of human remains by the US Air Force

  1. Many people have this strange belief leftover from lala land where there has to be a body buried intact in order for there to be a happy afterlife…or something. Or god can’t bring them back after Armageddon without a body..or something.

    Get over it. They’re dead, gone. Whatever it was that made them who they were is gone, never to be seen or heard from again.

    In my mind, there is little about religion that is more cruel than the belief that some day, we’ll get to see our loved ones again.

    My wife tells the story of a relation of hers in Germany, who, after some years as a widow, was asked by a friend why she didn’t get remarried. Her reply was that she just couldn’t – what would she ever do with two husbands in heaven?

    Another relative resisted visiting a daughter that had moved to the States for years and years. When finally confronted about her refusal, her answer was that she was afraid that if she died in America, when she went to heaven, everybody would be speaking English and she wouldn’t be close to her family!

    Complete idiocy.

  2. There are all kinds of risks in civilian life too. Getting killed in a fire might kinda mess up the old carcass, as would a bad auto accident or an airplane crash.

    How about all those folks who died at the World Trade Center? Didn’t find too many intact bodies there, did we?

    Or getting drowned at sea? Getting ate by fish just might screw up that ole’ bodily recreation thing, dontcha think?

    That particular belief has got to be one of the most idiotic ideas anybody has ever thought of next to just about all the rest of judeo-christ-islamic crap out there…

  3. They are stored up and when you get enough you send them to the incinerator and they are medical waste.

    Typically, certain body parts are also sampled before disposal, in the case of military hospitals, pathology samples are sent to the central repository, which has been collecting samples since Lincoln first ordered its establishment.

  4. This column is a complete waste of space IMO.
    The important question here mister bleeding heart liberal C-L person is WHY did the White House need to PAY Gladys Knight to perform? Unbelievable. This just doesn’t happen. It’s pretty much SOP that musical groups which perform for the POTUS do it por gratis.
    The roots of Black R&B music mostly chronicled men and women cheating on their spouse,free love and drinking.
    So, Mr. Mitchell “Investigative Reporter” how can you make that leap from music that more than not reflected the seedy side of Black life to it meaning something about race relations? W0W, is all I got2say.

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