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Survivors reaching a post-apocalyptic urban area in the north-western quadrant (North America or Europe) need to remove and dispose of all corpses in the building they intend to live in. They have gasoline from vehicles and a gas station nearby, firewood from the nearby homes, and as many tarps, bedsheets, tools, and blankets they need, as well as any object usually found in a medium density urban area.

Assume they are all adults, three men and two women of average build. They do not have specific knowledge of building large-scale pyres but are of average to above-average intellect and knowledge. This does not take place during either Winter or Summer.

  1. How long would they need to move a hundred dead human bodies (two weeks old) out of the building, and into a makeshift funeral pyre (including building the pyre, stacking the bodies, dousing, and igniting it)?
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    $\begingroup$ We have a strict one question per post policy. Bonus questions are still questions. I've taken the liberty of deleting it for you. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jul 22 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ How available are the resources. If I'm needing to search through an urban area for fuel, that's going to take longer than if I have a full stockpile on site. This includes bodies. Do they need to be searched for from a large surrounding area, or they located on site and need to be disposed of? $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jul 22 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ Why would they want to build a funeral pyre -- is it for religious reasons of do they have a practical goal? Burning humans is hard. Burning humans to ashes is basically impossible for a bunch of random survivors who don't know what they are doing. Anyway, be aware that it takes an awful lot of fuel to reduce a human body to ashes in an open fire, and the guy building the pyre needs to know how to do it. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 22 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ You have 5 people, clearing out a building that previously housed 100 people - seems like that's 20 times more building than you need? Maybe just clean out 1 or 2 apartments on the ground floor, and that's plenty of space for your crew, depending on how many rooms each apartment has, and whether your people are willing to share. If they all insist on having their own apartments, then clean out a few more. You can easily do that in a day, then take your time emptying out all the others. $\endgroup$ Jul 23 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffmann I seriously doubt that a building with 80 corpses stays habitable for more than a month or two. $\endgroup$
    – DonQuiKong
    Jul 24 at 13:23

6 Answers 6

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Frame Challenge

If the bodies have been inside for two weeks before being moved, they will not want to live in that building unless they're prepared to do extensive renovations.

I have twice been involved in recovering a body that had been undiscovered for a few days, in warmish conditions. In order to make the residences involved livable again, the floors where the bodies were located had to be ripped out and replaced, the drywall in the rooms where the bodies were found replaced, the furniture replaced, the carpeting replaced... Humans are, for obvious reasons, very sensitive at detecting decomposition. I don't know if you've ever smelled a decomposing corpse, but the smell is horrific and gets into everything, and that doesn't include the smell of excrement which the bodies will have released on death. A building with 100 people? Burning the bodies outside is a minor issue.

And don't even get me started on getting them out. Fluids will be leaking everywhere. The corpses will mostly be intact, so you're not likely to rip an arm off or anything, but they will be messy and very unpleasant to deal with.

Disposing of the bodies

That said, as some commenters pointed out, you aren't working with a crematorium trying to get them down to ash, you're just trying to burn the bodies enough to control disease and get them in small enough chunks scavengers can deal with what's left. You have gas, you have vehicles. Load the bodies into trailers or whatever, find a convenient pit, throw some wood on the bottom, a bit of gas to get it going, and toss the bodies on top. Just stay upwind. Or, find a landfill with piles on unburned garbage, throw the corpses on top, light it up, and leave.

Human bodies by themselves will support combustion: while Spontaneous Human Combustion is complete nonsense, the alleged cases do in fact involved bodies burning with very little in the way of external fuel sources.

Disposing of bodies, so long as you want to just get rid of them so they represent minimal risk of disease and so on and not trying to get them down to pure ash, is relatively easy. Unfortunately, there are enough examples seen through human history with mass murder scenes due to war or genocide to show how easy it is.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the information about the decomposing bodies. Excellent. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 23 at 3:06
  • $\begingroup$ This is excellent. Outhouses and rotting chicken carcasses smell bad enough that I wouldn't want to live near the combination. Nor would the disease risk be small with all the carrion flies, etcetera. I think I would raid a sports store for a decent tent rather than live in a building where 100 leaky corpses had been. I would then locate an RV or mobile home sales lot and pick out a new home that's not used and park it at a suitable long term site (near water for cooking and crop irrigation). Next step for housing would be to build something using construction equipment still available. $\endgroup$ Jul 24 at 17:40
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You don't tell us how big the building is, but let's makes some assumptions. 100 bodies, average family size in the U.S. of 2.6 people. That's 38.46 households. Let's call it 40 (couple of single people...). Average size of an apartment? Let's say 1,000 sqft. You need space for stairs and halls. That's a 50,000-60,000 sqft building. How many stories? It can be one to ten. Let's say six (10,000 sqft/floor? let's say ten). That means stairs, doors, carpet... You could use sheets to transport the bodies, but the fact remains that they've sat there decomposing for two weeks.

What's the point of cremating anything when the building is biologically more dangerous than leaving the bodies outside to finish decomposing?

But that wasn't your question... You have five adults. Let's ignore the gender breakdown and assume they're all equivalent workers. My wife has more endurance than I have, I can lift heavier things than she can. The two of us tend to get an equivalent amount of work done before we're pooped out. We're athletic in the way that active people who eat chinese food and BBQ tend to be. So, how long would it take she and I, and three friends, to clear that building?

I can believe we can clear the building in 2-3 days. Probably less. How old are your adults? You don't say. Five people like my wife and I wouldn't be in the mood to collect firewood after days of climbing stairs in a ten-story building and hauling decomposing bodies outside. Realistically it would probably take us a week. But if we put our minds to it... OK, three days.

Now, combustibles. I found the same references @CauêMoraes did. Let's assume 500Kg or about 1/2 ton of wood can cremate a body. That's 50 tons of wood. Gasoline can help start the fire, but it burns hot and fast. Fast is the problem. So it won't help. Fuel oil would help, but that's only available in specific areas (like the East Coast, none at all where I live, we use propane. Don't use propane.). So, wood. 50 tons of wood. By hand. 10 tons of wood each. By hand. (I've demolished buildings by hand... Ugh.) We don't live in an area where there's a ton of trees within walking distance of town. So we're demolishing houses and buildings to get wood. Well, we could get some of it from our local hardware store or lumber yard. But now we're hauling wood from a distance. We have gasoline, so maybe we have trucks? That would get us a bunch of wood. Is there a Home Depot nearby? That would get us more wood. If we have trucks and local lumber yards and/or hardware stores then 50 tons of wood isn't that hard to get. If we don't... It would take a month, minimum, maybe six months to demolish by hand enough houses to get 50 tons of wood. That's an outrageous guess, but I'm sitting in my chair staring numbly at my computer screen just thinking about it. So, trucks and a Home Depot, another day. No trucks or Home Depot? Months.

And let's not ignore that fire needs boatloads of oxygen to burn. Lumber is terrible when it comes to that. All those lovely square objects that minimize oxygen flow. Tree logs would be much better. But we're likely stuck with lumber. All I'm saying is you can't just borrow Home Depot's forklift and set down a bunch of stacks of lumber, throw the bodies on top, douse with gas, and let it burn. It won't burn that well. It might not burn substantially at all. You need slow and hot to cremate a body. Slow and warm won't do it. Slow means lots of fuel. Hot means lots of oxygen. The lumber needs to be carelessly tossed into a heap to get the oxygen flow or stacked up in log-cabin-like grids. Time. Time, time, time, time, time.

Another day to stack all the wood. Maybe two. We're in our 50s.

Once it's ready to burn we need to wait for good weather. Let's just ignore that. Then we need to "borrow" some generators from Home Depot and more of that gasoline along with some Rug Doctor floor cleaners to thoroughly clean and disinfect that building to make all the effort we put into burning the bodies worthwhile...

Wait a minute...

You have gasoline?!!!

FRAME CHALLENGE

You have gasoline. Why on earth would I waste one second of my time trying to cremate anything? I'd look around for a backhoe or a Bobcat and a dump truck. I'd put all the bodies in the truck (do I even need to haul them down stairs? Can I throw them off balconies?), drive the truck downtown, and leave it. I might not even bother to turn it off. Don't want fuel in the truck for some prankster to drive it back because they don't want the bodies in their neighborhood. If I'm really being a good citizen, I take the dump truck to the dump and, well, dump the bodies. The truck might come in useful later.

If I have access to gasoline, there are a thousand other ways to solve this problem that are easier than cremation. And since the city is filled with buildings full of dead bodies, what would be the point of cremation other than to ruin a perfectly good field or street with the ash and heat?

Conclusion

Cremation: weeks to months depending on how hard it is to get the wood.

Any other solution: A day. Maybe two if you have to find the dump truck.

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    $\begingroup$ The idea of 500Kg of wood to cremate a body is a failed premise imo. You are not filling urns w/ the ashes of the dead nor are you creating a spectacle. This would just be to prevent disease ... thus a fire hot enough for cooking temps should be enough. Also, once the water is gone the flesh of a body will burn on its own. Causing the bones to burn to dust is overkill imo. $\endgroup$ Jul 22 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ @CaffeineAddiction Who wants the burnt corpses of sanitized bodies piled in their front yard? Besides, please don't miss the point of the end of my message. I wouldn't cremate anything. It's probably the worst possible way to solve the problem. The building next to you is filled with dead bodies, too. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 22 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ Who wants to live there? People who dont want to live outside and be exposed to the elements of the post apoc world. Also The building next door is prob on the TODO list after they get the current building cleared out. But knowing how long 1 building takes allows you to determine how long it would take to do the rest in the area. $\endgroup$ Jul 22 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ /Don't want fuel in the truck for some prankster to drive it back because they don't want the bodies in their neighborhood/ Fortunately I have some fuel to fuel it up. And after I bring it back I am taking the tires with me. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jul 22 at 23:49
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    $\begingroup$ @CaffeineAddiction That's just another frame challenge. There are abandoned buildings and homes all over the place and we're only talking about 5 people. After hauling and burning 100 bodies (even if only partially burned...), what's the likelihood of doing that all over again? Heck, for just five people it would make more sense to walk to an outlying farm, deal with the 4-8 bodies that are there, and start living a better life not surrounded by death. The whole situation is overkill. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 23 at 3:11
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About a day (8-12 hours)

The rate limiting step here is moving and stacking the bodies, if four of the people do this, then the other one can collect the wood and gasoline needed, as well as build the pyre.

To move 100 dead bodies, the most efficient way is probably to make stretchers with some poles and sheets. So two teams of 2 can transport bodies one at a time. This will be roughly equivalent to moving furniture out of a house, if a team can move one body out in 10 minutes, then it will take 2 teams 8.3 hours to move 100 bodies out (10x100/2/60) if they take 15 minutes each, then it'll be 12.5 hours (15x100/2/60).

The person building the pyre just needs to be thinking about how the the air flow will be maintained and to be sure there is enough accelerant and wood to be sure it burns hot and long.

It will probably burn for a long while after, but your timer stops when they ignite it, not when it's all done burning.

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I disagree that a day is reasonable unless your humans are mechanical automatons. If they are human, there are only five of them, then they have both physical and psychological obstacles to pulling this off. The physical obstacles are the easiest to tackle and can work by a simple formula with the following variables.

  • Food supply (lots of calories burned in this activity)
  • Sanitary supplies (gloves, masks, sanitizer)
  • Physical fitness of the workers
  • Physical accessibility of the bodies
  • State of decomposition of the bodies
  • Available work hours (are there hostile forces acting at night? Is there inclement wind or weather?)
  • Available rest hours (can they get sufficient rest to do the work?)

Psychological obstacles can exists which render the workers completely immobilized for the task. Necessity does not ALWAYS drive people to solve their problems, people do sometime just surrender. Only your story can determine if this workforce is up to the labor involved, so this is a huge variable.

If we assume your workforce is psychologically detached from the bodies and they are able to complete this as a mission, then you can arrive at a "most believable timeframe" to put into your story. I can say, my suspension of disbelief would completely vanish if you did this in one day. Here are the requirements to create a believable scenario with what you have provided:

An enclosed building to serve as a crematorium.

You will not be able to sterilize these bodies in an open "funeral pyre." Not in bulk, at least. Please observe that a funeral pyre has MUCH more fuel mass than the mass of the person being cremated. And even so, the pyre is often launched into the water so whatever is not consumed by fire is simply disposed of in the water. So you need to identify a brick or concrete building, break out the lower floor windows to provide oxygen to the base of the fire, and fill the lower floor with fuel (wood, gasoline, fabric, etc.) The bodies will be placed on the upper floors, and you will need holes punched through the floor.

Tarps or body bags to transport decaying bodies

Fluids and parts will be falling off these bodies after a time, and you need to contain this. You will be preparing hundreds of bodies for transport, and it will take several of the workers to do this until it becomes a science. After they are prepared, each body needs to be transported, down and up as many flights of stairs as you have in the story. If you want a mathematical expression, grant 30 minutes to prepare each body for transport, as an average. Some will be easier than others depending on where they fell. Perhaps some have been buried under rubble, or have been lodged into an inaccessible space. Some have left biohazards behind such as blood or other fluids that need cleaning. All of this factors into "removal" of the body, since your goal is to create a habitable space.

Supply runs to get bags, supplies, fuel, etc.

When you don't have all 5 workers available very little if anything can get done. You will be moving possibly several tons of fuel into your crematorium, and that includes locating the fuel. You will be consuming hundreds of pounds of rags, linen, gloves, sanitizer, and other supplies in this cleanb-up effort. Locating and transporting that will occupy half of each workday, unless you simply dedicate several days just to that task.

Crematorium preparation

You need to ventilate and stock the crematorium properly. This is not a simple mechanical exercise, you need to plan where the fuel goes and how the oxygen is going to flow to make the fire burn well. There is planning and order in this process. That takes time to be believable.

Lighting the fire

Even campfires struggle if the fuel isn't dry or the conditions aren't right. Very few people llight a fire up perfect every time. This fire is done on the fly by people without crematorium experience, so it will probably fail a couple times, even with gasoline. The fuel may not catch or have enough oxygen. It may take several hours for the fire to actually be self-sustaining.

10 days, or two week is believable, depending on the team's psychological fitness

I would expect that a dozen bodies per day can be cleaned from the living space and prepared for the pyre given your workforce. But unless they are military commandoes, there will be bickering, arguments, rebellion, etc. slowing them down. I would expect five civilian survivors to clean up that house in two weeks at best.

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  • $\begingroup$ you can burn bodies in the open as long as you dig a hole to burn them in, no need to waste a building. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 23 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ Sure if you have an excavator handy? Moving 500 cubic yards of earth vs. burn a building? I'm wasting a building, thank you :) $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Jul 23 at 15:13
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You could do it in a day or two if you're not moving them far I would think.

The concentration camp Nazi guards were made to move hundreds so moving the bodies is unpleasant but doable.

Find a big hole in the ground, fill it partway with wood, get a big fire going and throw the bodies in as they arrive. A whole district in Samoa was depopulated this way over the course of several days during a war, although the people weren't killed first (so presumably didn't need to be carried).

A pyre makes no sense it's just too much work.

To reduce bodies to ash over here we use old tyres on deceased animals and they do the job very completely.

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    $\begingroup$ you would need a lot of wood but this will let you save as much as possible. you will still burn a few thousand pounds of wood. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 23 at 12:37
  • $\begingroup$ @John yeah, not the optimal way of doing it. Chuck some tyres in as well and it will make a big difference. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Jul 23 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah your going to be burning a lot of garbage, to save usable fuel, honestly a mass grave without the burning is probably easier. it just needs to be further away. Thats what usually happens when a lot of bodies need to be disposed of quickly. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 23 at 12:44
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Well, if they are not lazy or stupid and the resources are easily available, I believe they can do it in a week or so. Given the amount of bodies, a single pyre doesn't make much sense. They would probably make several pyres that can burn faster than a single big, dangerous and hard to handle one.

Well, just guessing, but each pyre would have something around 5 bodies, take half a tree trunk of wood and 3 gallons of gasoline to burn.

PS: are you planning mass murder ?? Kkk

EDIT: is acid available? They could make funeral acid pools instead of pyres, it would be more efficient kkk

EDIT 2: According to UN data, nearly 400-500 kg of wood is required to cremate a body. I just google it, so I think you gonna need some 50 tons of wood if your characters do everything right...

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know what "half a tree trunk" is in the woods near your village, but in the woods near mine that would be less than half a cubic meter of wood. Citation needed that one can reduce five human bodies to ashes burning half a cubic meter of wood. (And twenty liters of gasoline might help set the wood on fire, but won't do anything else much.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 22 at 16:19

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