How are dead bodies handled by the law?

Corpses on the streets, corpses in jungles, corpses by the riversides, corpses inside homes. Unattended corpses, uncared for corpses, mutilated corpses, disfigured corpses. Corpses of the homeless, corpses of crime-victims, corpses of alien citizens, corpses of unfortunates. The remains of a human body is no property. It is subject to dignified treatment. It cannot be transacted, violated, seized or stolen.

All persons do not have the privilege of a decent death and disposal of their bodily remains. Unfortunate accidents and situations daily cause a number of dead bodies to be found abandoned at uncertain spots. Where is their place? How are they disposed of? Which institution of the nation is responsible for them? Why is this an important issue?

Death Statistics 

Death rate of Nepal has decreased to 7.9 per 1000 persons in 2021. The US has a National Missing and Unidentified Persons System that has recorded around 13,885 deaths as of December 2021 since an average of 22.4 years. Similarly, the UK’s Missing Persons Unit has 1,200 open cases with around 120 unidentified persons each year. Difficulties in data recovery have rendered 60% of the 20,000 dead migrants to the Mediterranean to remain unidentified as found by the journal Forensic Science International in its 2018 study.

International Commitment

Various instrument in the international law ensure that the dead receive a respectful treatment:

  • Geneva Convention IV 1949, Article 16 protects the killed against ill treatments.
  • Geneva Convention IV 1949, Article 130(1) enforces proper maintenance of graves, their recognition and respect.
  • Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam 1990, Article 3 prohibits mutilation of dead bodies.
  • A Resolution adopted by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights addressed dignified handling, proper management, disposal and the needs of the families.
  • The UN’s Inter Agency Standing Committee’s Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters focuses that the best should be tried to find human remains for the identification of the deceased and to deliver them to the nearest kins.

Jurisdiction of Authority

The authority over the dead bodies is determined by the place where they are found rather than the place where they were born. The place where a dead body is found is known as a death scene. Such scenes may or may not be a crime scene but should always be approached with suspicion of crime. Examination of the primary crime scene with substantial evidence and secondary crime scene with related evidence is of the utmost importance while handling the dead bodies. 

Legal Frameworks

  • India: Constitution of India, Article 21 envisions protection of life and personal liberty. By its virtue, it is the state’s duty to prevent the persons dead of either natural or unnatural causes from any violation to their mortal bodies. ‘NHRC Advisory for Upholding Dignity & Protecting the Rights of the Dead’  has been issued. But no specific law is in place defining the proper ways to treat the dead bodies; however, courts have been deciding in favour of maintaining the dignity of corpses.
  • Nepal: Muluki Criminal Procedure Code 2074, Section 20 necessitates examination of corpses and several steps it has to follow if the circumstances lead to suspicion of any crime. ‘Unidentified and Unclaimed Bodies Management Guideline 2021’ is a federal initiative to take care of bodies whose identification is not obvious. Muluki Civil Code 2074, Section 248 provides that the property of the dead persons may be dissolved in the local level fund after deduction of cost required for their obsequies if no successor comes to claim it.

Procedure in Nepal

The forsaken or unidentified bodies’ information needs to be flowed to the local level and ward by the police administrative unit that finds them. The process by which the police handle the deceased in Nepal can be found in the ‘Journal of College of Medical Sciences’. The dead body is taken to the mortuary and kept in a refrigerated state first. If the body is identifiable, its identity is affirmed by different means. Otherwise, an autopsy has to be carried out even without the relatives’ permission so that important evidence may not be missed. There is no specific guideline as for how long shall the body be kept in the mortuary in case nobody comes to claim it but it is often found that the institutions keep it for 35 days or for until the resources start getting scarce. 

Unidentified and unclaimed bodies are to be posted on the ‘Dead Body Management Portal’ of Nepal Police with their photos, physical features and other available details. They are required to be kept secure for 12 years as per international standards. After a reasonable time period, Nepal Police, in coordination with other social organisations, may dispose of the corpse or deliver it to the TUTH for research purposes.

The Morgue in Nepal is maintained by the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital(TUTH) with a capacity of 32 body storage and a few embassies have availability of freezers. Other than these, there are no permanent storage facilities. The deceased foreigners are either embalmed and sent home or cremated here. 


The dignity that dead bodies are entitled to is endorsed in several case laws like R v. Fox 1841, Williams v. Williams 1882, Permananda Katara v. Union of India 1989, In re Widening of Beekman Street 2012, and many more.  Accidents, natural disasters, homicides, natural causes and other homely incidents are common. Deaths cannot go unnoticed because they are contributory to the accuracy of annual demographic statistics. It is further backed by the legal and moral necessity to uphold the dead bodies’ dignity.

In Nepal, the lack of good storage facilities out of Kathmandu is a major problem faced by local authorities in managing the randomly collected dead bodies while keeping their deserved respect intact. Sufficient morgues, efficient body-tracking system, elaborative procedure for handling the dead bodies and clear indication of individual and institutional responsibilities are the requirements for protecting the dignity of the deceased. 

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