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Laws and Rules You Need To Know When Handling a Dead Body

Even if you’re the type who has a plan for every situation, you probably wouldn’t know what to do if you came across a dead body. And depending on who you are and where the person died, the rules and regulations about handling the body may differ. So keep reading to find out what you should do if you find a dead body, according to the law.

What Do You Do With A Dead Body?

Law Enforcement

As you might imagine, police officers and other members of law enforcement encounter dead bodies in the course of their work far more often than the average person. And naturally, there are in-depth procedures members of law enforcement have to follow when they find a deceased person. Generally, there are 3 steps an officer would take:

  1. Call the death in to their supervisor, using specific codes to differentiate different causes of death.

  2. Request medical help if the person shows any signs of life.

  3. Preserve the scene of death if there is any suspicion of foul play or criminal activity.

Once the person’s death has been confirmed, the Medical Examiner’s (ME) office will be contacted.

Medical Examiners

When law enforcement deal with dead bodies, they always call the Medical Examiner, who is a board-certified physician trained in forensics. The ME will try to figure out the cause of death by examining the body tissue, organs, and cells of the deceased person. They may even have to test evidence found at the crime scene and testify in court.

When the ME arrives at the scene of death, they gather information and find out what protective clothing or equipment they need. Then they photograph and record details about the body while leaving all personal effects of the deceased alone. After the ME is finished with their work, they place the body in a vinyl body bag and fill out a Body Identification Sheet.


Morticians usually wash and preserve dead bodies to prepare them for burial or cremation. They’re responsible for retrieving the deceased person,preparing their body, and eventually releasing it back to relatives and loved ones. Laws vary by state, but here are some legal requirements that morticians work under:

  • Morticians can’t hold bodies as collateral for unpaid funeral expenses.

  • Morticians have to do their best to carefully preserve or care for the dead body in a reasonable amount of time (Moody v. Messer).

  • If the dead body is damaged because the mortician or their staff were negligent, the mortician is held responsible (Quesada v. Oak Hill Improvement Co.)

Hospital Staff

As you probably imagine, people die in hospitals frequently. Because of this, there are very clear rules and regulations that hospital staff have to follow when somebody in their care dies.

Generally, the attending physician has to declare the person dead and record the time of death. As soon as someone is declared dead, they fall under the Medical Examiner’s jurisdiction. Hospital staff cannot use the body for medical testing or experimentation. In fact, they can’t even take photographs, collect evidence, move personal effects, or touch any medical equipment the person was attached to.


Unlike medical professionals or members of law enforcement, regular people don’t have strict rules and procedures to follow if they happen to find a dead body. However, here are some key things to remember:

  • After you realize the person is deceased, do not touch the body or anything in the area. It could be considered a crime scene, and you could interfere with evidence. It’s also important not to touch the dead body because it could already be decomposing or have dangerous pathogens that could infect you.

  • Call law enforcement as soon as you can. They’ll take over from there.

  • Sometimes, you might be left with clean-up duty if the death happened on your property or at your residence. In that case, it’s best to hire a professional service who is experienced in dealing with biomedical waste.

However, there are laws that make it illegal to handle a corpse “indecently,” neglect it, dispose of it improperly or not at all, or try to pass the deceased off as still living.

After a person dies, in the eyes of the law they are both a person and a thing, so the legal procedures and rules can be complicated. Because it’s such an intricate legal question, guidelines and laws vary state by state so make sure to check for the laws in your area.

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