Photo Of The Day

REMKO DE WAAL/AFP/Getty Images A convoy of hearses carrying coffins containing the remains of victims of the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, drives from the Eindhoven Airbase to Hilversum on July 23, 2014, after a ceremony following the arrival of a Dutch Air Force C-130 Hercules plane and an Australian Royal Australian Air Force C17 transport plane with the first bodies of the 298 victims of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 plane crash in eastern Ukraine. The first bodies from flight MH17 arrived in the Netherlands on Wednesday almost a week after it was shot down over Ukraine, as the conflict flared yet again near the Malaysian airliner's crash site.

REMKO DE WAAL/AFP/Getty Images
A convoy of hearses carrying coffins containing the remains of victims of the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, drives from the Eindhoven Airbase to Hilversum on July 23, 2014, after a ceremony following the arrival of a Dutch Air Force C-130 Hercules plane and an Australian Royal Australian Air Force C17 transport plane with the first bodies of the 298 victims of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 plane crash in eastern Ukraine. The first bodies from flight MH17 arrived in the Netherlands on Wednesday almost a week after it was shot down over Ukraine, as the conflict flared yet again near the Malaysian airliner’s crash site.

Why Bringing Bodies Home Matters

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.

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.

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.

Gerard Jacobs CNN


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