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Dealing with the dead after a nuclear attack

During the Cold War civilians learned to accept that any use of nuclear weapons would lead to death on a vast scale. But the British authorities were less than well prepared for what to do with the bodies.

By Taras Young

  • Essay

Having experienced the horrors of a nuclear attack on Britain, the survivors would have been left with the unpleasant job of dealing with the remains of those who had died. Decomposing bodies attract vermin and encourage the spread of disease, so acting quickly to dispose of the dead would have been vital. It would be reasonable to expect officials to have had detailed plans ready, just in case. Naturally, they didn’t.

A cartoon of two coffin-carrying skeletons

British civil defence officials were given the task of planning for the disposal of the dead.

The government’s public line was to focus on the survivors. “It is true that very many people would die,” said a 1980s Home Office statement. “But it is equally true that there would be millions of survivors.” Conveniently, this took the focus off what would happen to the millions of corpses: by some estimates, as many as 80 per cent of Britons would be killed.

A cartoon of binbags containing dead people merrily hopping along a road

Plans for dealing with the dead in the event of a nuclear attack quickly lent themselves to satire.

In official circulars intended for a more limited audience, the Home Office was more candid. “The religious rites and personal wishes previously expressed by the deceased would have to be ignored,” it stated in 1976. “Many bodies could not be identified, even with scientific assistance, from the remains.” Another circular painted a bleak picture of life after an attack, admitting that “large numbers of casualties would lie where they died”.

Corporate corpse management

The mid-1960s saw some local Civil Defence Corps groups form Disposal of the Dead committees. The committee for Ayrshire proposed holding sites for corpses such as empty factory grounds, bus stations and open fields, with bodies being disposed of in disused quarries, mines, open mass graves, or in the sea.

At the same time, one official at the Scottish Home and Health Department believed nuclear attack wouldn’t leave much room for propriety. He noted that considerations such as identification and mode of burial “become very unimportant” when dealing with such a mass of dead bodies. “Of course this is deplorable,” he added, “but planning can scarcely proceed on the basis of higher standards.”

As late as 1985, the Home Office’s official guidance said that, while it would be important to dispose of the dead quickly, this “would be a responsibility for the local authority”. Indeed, in 1974, the law was changed to force local authorities to plan for the disposal of human remains post-nuclear attack. Unfortunately, local authorities largely didn’t want to take on that responsibility.

Following Home Office advice that “the location of mass graves and the method of disposal would be a local, ad hoc decision”, some councils made vague plans to use parks and other public spaces for burying the dead. The County Surveyor for Devon County Council was charged with supervising “Works (including mass graves)”, according to the council’s 1972 war plan. In 1975, Bolton Council assigned the thankless task of corpse management to its Director of Recreation.

More: How the authorities thought nuclear war would affect your mind.

For practical and ideological reasons, some local authorities chose to effectively opt out of their responsibilities. In 1983, Gwent County Council stated it “would not pretend that real protection is possible against the horror, suffering and devastation that wartime emergency plans imply”. For those that didn’t directly defy Whitehall, in-depth plans for dealing with the dead were notable by their absence. Many local authorities’ war plans consisted of retyped, detail-light Home Office circulars, and local emergency planning officers were often critical of the advice in private.

Public non-information

If the council couldn’t help, what advice was there for individuals? Early public information booklets on nuclear attack made scant mention of injury, and didn’t deal with death at all. The Home Office guide published in 1963 avoided the issue, simply listing the contents of a basic first-aid kit.

This was somewhat resolved in ‘Protect and Survive’, the infamous public information campaign prepared in 1975. When war loomed, TV and radio broadcasts on a loop would explain how the public should act, with an accompanying booklet dropping on doormats across the country. On the topic of casualties, ‘Protect and Survive’ advised: “If a death occurs while you are confined to the fallout room, place the body in another room and cover it as securely as possible. Attach an identification.”

An illustration of a family nuclear shelter

‘Protect and Survive’ encouraged families to build their own indoor shelters.

It continued: “You should receive radio instructions on what to do next. If no instructions have been given within five days, temporarily bury the body as soon as it is safe to go out, and mark the spot.”

Gallows humour

When ‘Protect and Survive’ was finally made available to the public in 1980, it rapidly became the subject of derision and parody. One such spoof was ‘Meet Mr Bomb’, created by artists from the US satirical magazine National Lampoon. Billing itself as a “practical guide to nuclear extinction”, the booklet was heavily styled to look like the official one.

“Apart from outright death, a nuclear event could cause considerable damage to impacted citizens,” it said. “Britons could be subject not just to vaporisation, but to a variety of injuries caused by flying glass, flying buildings, and flying citizens.”

Where the official line drawings were gloomy, this parody instead presented a positively cheerful family preparing for death. In one macabre scene, the Jones family is shown taking refuge in a mausoleum: the father pulling a skeleton from a coffin in order to climb in himself, his infant son sitting nearby, playing with a human bone. Given the lacklustre state of planning for disposal of the dead, perhaps this DIY approach would have been the least worst option for ordinary people.

About the author

Photograph of Taras Young

Taras Young

@coldwaruk

Taras Young researches and writes about Britain's preparations for nuclear attack. His blog, Communicating the Unthinkable, brings to light rarely seen artefacts that are a record of this unsettling aspect of the Cold War.