Trauma and disasters, both manmade and natural, are frequent occurrences in the present day world: terrorism, plane crashes, earthquakes, industrial accidents, combat and poison gas attacks to name but a few. Common to the occurrence of nearly all disasters and combat is the likelihood of violent death and the presence of human remains – burned, dismembered, mutilated, or relatively intact. Exposure to mass death as well as individual dead bodies is a disturbing and sometimes frightening event. The nature of the stress of exposure to traumatic death and the dead and its relationship to posttraumatic stress disorder and other posttraumatic psychiatric illnesses is not well understood (Breslau & Davis, 1987; Lindy, Green & Grace, 1987; Rundell et al., 1989; Ursano, 1987; Ursano & McCarroll, 1990).
The tasks of body recovery, identification, transport, and burial may require prolonged as well as acute contact with mass death. Recent research has shown that victims, onlookers, and rescue workers are traumatized by the experience or expectation of confronting death in disaster situations (Jones, 1985; Miles, Demi & Mostyn-Aker, 1984; Schwartz, 1984; Taylor & Frazer, 1982). Exposure to abusive violence (Laufer, Gallops & Frey- Woulters, 1984) and to the grotesque (Green et al., 1989) significantly contributes to the development of psychiatric symptoms in war veterans, particularly intrusive imagery (Laufer, Brett & Gallops, 1985; Lifton, 1973).
Despite the widespread recognition that exposure to dead bodies is one of the major stressors in disasters, few studies have examined the psychiatric effects of exposure to dead bodies and body parts.