Funeral Homes Scared of Dead Bodies

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is pretty terrifying. It is an incurable brain disease that is invariably fatal. Tiny prions (infectious proteins) infect the brain and cause it to take on a spongy texture. Progressively worsening symptoms include dementia, hallucinations, depression, paranoia, and seizures. Its effects have been compared to a human version of mad cow disease. You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.


Just when you think there is nothing worse than having a loved one contract and die from this rare disease, turns out you have one more thing to worry about — not being able to bury or cremate the body.  According to this report by NBC,  “across the country, funeral homes and crematoriums are routinely refusing to accept the bodies of CJD patients out of fear of infection, despite health guidelines that say that — with standard precautions — embalming and burial is perfectly safe.”

Oh, it gets worse. Listen to this: “Some families report that their loved ones who died from CJD were removed from the hospital, placed in double body bags and taken directly to a crematorium with no warning. Others tell NBC News that funeral workers forced pallbearers to wear medical gloves and told mourners to stand far back from the gravesite and to disperse quickly after the ceremony.”


That’s some Grade-A time-of-that-plague ignorance on display. “Hear ye, hear ye, stay back from thy plague-ridden bodyie! The clouds of death doth float from it.”

One family featured by NBC told the story of how their father’s body was rejected by four funeral homes in Salt Lake City. Outright rejected. Refused service. Not only did the funeral homes refuse to handle the body so they wouldn’t “risk their health,” they also refused to even cremate the body, “worried that the spores would become airborne.”  WHAT. Spores?! That’s like a science-fiction movie. There are no Creutzfeldt-Jakob spores, that’s NOT A THING.

Just in case you weren’t convinced yet, what do you have to say about this, neurology professor at Johns Hopkins? “There’s no known actual risk. Morticians are in no more danger at all than anyone else,” said Dr. Richard T. Johnson, a CJD expert and a neurology professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, in Baltimore, Maryland.

If you’re an Ask a Mortician person (follower, deathling, whatever) you will remember that I recently did a video on why dead bodies are not dangerous.

Maybe I should have screamed or enunciated or something? If funeral homes want to be taken seriously as professional facilities, trained in the art of death, not spouting weirdo pseudo-science about spore-spurtin’ danger-corpses would be an excellent place to start.



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  • Those poor families! It sucks so bad when false information gets hyped like that. Spores! Like a mushroom??

  • Anonymous

    I love the fact you take down the BS myths that control the western views on death and >gasp< dead bodies..
    My children and I enjoy watching your youtube posts (well, I choose which ones they watch ;^) )
    thank you for keeping us deathlings informed and entertained

  • Kate Dennis

    A few short years ago we went through a similar panic with AIDS.
    “Don’t touch them! They’ll kill you! Don’t breathe the same air!”

  • Misty Nuckolls

    Oh, wow. I suppose funeral service education drills the dangers of spore-forming bacteria into our heads so often and so hard that it leaves little room for oh, I dunno, ALL THE REST OF SCIENCE. (I haven’t even encountered a tissue gas case yet, but I still have nightmares about clostridium perfringens!)

    There’s a lot of misinformation out there regarding CJD, and like most hyperbole, it has its roots in fact. CJD has been proven to survive temperatures which a small and/or poorly-loaded waste incinerator might peak at. And an experiment involving mice (or was it hamsters? Some rodent, in any case) were exposed to *aerosolized brain tissue* infected with a similar prion disease did in fact contract said disease from that exposure. It takes a special sort of asshat to take two legitimate scientific papers, extract the scariest bits, and cook up “CJD SPORES ARE GONNA GET SPEWED RIGHT INTO YER BAYBEEZ NOSTRILS.” (I’m not even really exaggerating here, just paraphrasing one “Doctor” Tyler Yeats of the august publication EnviroNews: )

  • FoxtrotDelta

    First off, whoever said anything about spores needs to be lobotomized. That guy should seriously do the research first to avoid sounding like an idiot. Prions don’t release spores. Ugh.

    This disease is different. Within a few months to years of “discovering” HIV/AIDS, we knew it was a virus and that standard protocols (protective equipment, embalming solutions, etc.) killed it. Basically, unless you were sloppy, incompetent, or just an idiot, you were very unlikely to contract the disease from normal procedures of a dead body.

    CJD was discovered and named over 70 years ago. We still know little about it. What we do know is that it is completely untouched by all known embalming chemicals (including phenol and all of the -aldehydes). Bleach doesn’t even kill it.

    Since we know so little about it, the question for funeral providers is simple: is it worth it to potentially expose staff and the public to a mostly unknown disease? Since the disease has been noted in the cells of various internal organs, would normal embalming (including aspiration) be worth the risk since there is a reasonable chance of contamination of equipment (since most funeral homes don’t have an autoclave)?

    Personally, I understand that the families want closure and to see their loved one again. This is why we even exist as a profession. But to me, and this is just my opinion, one disappointed family is a reasonable price to pay to limit my exposure to a disease that is mostly unknown. I just don’t want to die in such a horrible way.

    I would have no problem offering cremation as an option. Our state law requires cremation machines to be at least 1800 degrees F, which research shows will destroy the prion. But embalming a CJD case would be refused (we had one recently – dressing and casketing without embalming was offered and accepted).