What to do if You Find a Dead Body!

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A Brief History

On January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger was walking with her 3 year old daughter near Leimert Park in Los Angeles, California at about 10 in the morning when they came upon the naked, dead body of a young woman.  The body had been cut in half and mutilated, and soon became famous as “The Black Dahlia.”  Betty at first thought the object on the ground was a discarded mannequin, but quickly realized it was instead a human being!  Betty did the right thing, which is to immediately run to the nearest house to use the telephone to call the police.  What would you have done?

Digging Deeper

If you find a dead human body or become aware of a death, in virtually all states you are required to report that death to a person of authority, such as the police, the coroner, EMT, 911, or the like.  A passage from the Ohio Revised Code 2921.22 is typical of such laws:

(C) No person who discovers the body or acquires the first knowledge of the death of a person shall fail to report the death immediately to a physician or advanced practice registered nurse whom the person knows to be treating the deceased for a condition from which death at such time would not be unexpected, or to a law enforcement officer, an ambulance service, an emergency squad, or the coroner in a political subdivision in which the body is discovered, the death is believed to have occurred, or knowledge concerning the death is obtained. For purposes of this division, “advanced practice registered nurse” does not include a certified registered nurse anesthetist.

By the way, another law in most states requires any person becoming aware of a shooting or stabbing to likewise notify authorities, and for that matter to report any felony crime a person becomes aware of.

Of course, if you do find a dead person, you should not trample or tamper with the body or the immediate area around the scene, except in an attempt to render aid if you think the person might be alive.  How can you tell for sure a person is certainly dead if you do not check for breathing or a pulse?  Brief guidelines that almost certainly indicate a person is truly deceased include partial or total decapitation, a crushed head, lividity (discoloration caused by pooling of blood), rigor mortis, and/or decomposition.  Being cut in half or in pieces is usually another good indication of probable death.  By the way, we do NOT recommend kicking the suspected dead person!  A witness to that event might interpret your actions as less than upright…

In any case, whether you are sure a person is dead or might be alive, you should call the cops or a rescue squad to make a final determination and/or render aid as needed.  Depending on how recent the death might be, you may also be well advised to be alert for the presence of a perpetrator that may want to do you harm so as to eliminate a witness.  Although answering police questions might be inconvenient for you and possibly even irritating, your civic duty is to not merely make the notification anonymously and leave, but to provide whatever information authorities deem necessary for their investigation.

Do NOT go through the dead person’s pockets, purse, or any belongings to look for some sort of ID card or other items!  You may be contaminating a crime scene and possibly even be accused of trying to steal from the dead.  Taking your own photographs of the scene may not be illegal, but it certainly is intrusive to the privacy of the deceased and possibly a disturbing factor for the dead persons friends and relatives if those photos appear on social media.

Should you come upon or somehow see what you think might be a dead body, but you are not sure if it is actually a mannequin or a sleeping or injured person, definitely call the authorities anyway, just in case.  It the object turns out not to be a dead body or even a person, at least you did what is the prudent thing to do, just in case.  Likewise, if you are not sure if remains you come upon are human or animal in origin.  Do not make any assumptions and let the authorities make the final determination.

As citizens of a larger society we all have certain obligations to our fellow citizens, both legal and moral.  Most people realize this and generally do the right thing.  Do you?

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever had to report a dead body you found?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Harrington, Roger. BLACK DAHLIA: The Story of America’s Most Gruesome Murder.  Independently published, 2017.

Lane, Roger. Murder in America: A History.  Ohio State University Press, 1007.

The featured image in this article, a mugshot taken by Santa Barbara police of Elizabeth Short “The Black Dahlia” in 1943 for underage drinking, is in the public domain in the United States because it was published in the United States between 1925 and 1977 without a copyright notice. See Commons:Hirtle chart for further explanation. 


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.