The mortuary practices of the United States military are relatively private. Cameras are off-limits at Dover Mortuary, which is the major military mortuary in the U.S.
But a few select journalists have had the opportunity to peek under that shroud of secrecy. And the military itself has published documents relating to what goes on behind closed doors at Dover.
Below, we’ll fill you in on everything we know about military mortuary procedures. We’ll walk you through the steps that a deceased soldier, his or her family, and various Army and mortuary personnel go through when a military death occurs.
Step 1: Retrieval
The first part of military mortuary procedure occurs on-location, often overseas or even in active combat. That task is retrieving the body.
Mortuary Affairs Specialists, or 92M’s, are enlisted military personnel who endure all kinds of conditions to retrieve their fallen comrades. They put their own lives at risk to ensure that America’s fallen soldiers are treated with respect and dignity.
The process of retrieval falls into the four categories below:
- Combat recovery
- Post-combat recovery
- Area recovery
- Historical recovery
Combat recovery and post-combat recovery are especially dangerous to the lives of Mortuary Specialists.
In the former, Mortuary Specialists retrieve soldiers’ remains while combat is ongoing, putting their lives on the line.
In the latter, they make a retrieval immediately after combat has ended. But the level of danger is still high because of mines and enemy snipers.
Step 2: Identification
Once remains have been located, the Mortuary Specialist will attempt an identification by examining the person’s tags and uniform. They also speak with the commanding officer to confirm the person’s identity.
If an identification is made, the Mortuary Specialist will return to a relatively safe location with the remains and report the death.
If no identification can be made, the specialist will record where the body was found and process the remains for transportation back to the United States. There, further steps can be taken to identify the body.
Step 3: Informing the family
As soon as the individual is positively identified, military personnel in the United States prepare to inform the spouse or family. This is supposed to happen within 12 to 24 hours of the death or positive identification.
Typically, two uniformed officers deliver the news in person to the soldier’s spouse or next-of-kin.
Step 3: Dignified transfer
Next, the military returns the soldier’s remains to the United States in a process known as “dignified transfer.” The remains arrive at Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, where the Charles C. Carson Center—the military’s mortuary—is located.
Service members from all branches of the military, as well as civilians and contractors employed by the Department of Defense, work to honor deceased soldiers and their families at the sprawling Charles C. Carson complex.
If an identification has been made, the soldier’s family members can attend the dignified transfer at their request. The Air Force arranges transportation for them to Dover and back home again.
Step 4: Personal effects
The U.S. Army Human Resources Command has a “Joint Personal Effects Depot,” which assists in mortuary procedures and operations at the Dover Port Mortuary.
Soldiers assigned to this department take a full accounting of the deceased person’s personal effects (belongings they had with them at the time of death). This often includes hand-written letters and photographs. They keep those effects safe until they can be retrieved by family. The Depot works jointly with the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marines to achieve this goal.
Soldiers in this role also serve as liaisons for the family members who travel to Dover to witness the dignified transfer of their loved one.
Step 5: Further identification
If an identification wasn’t made immediately, the lab at Dover Air Force Base will take additional steps to achieve one.
The lab is state-of-the-art (think NCIS) and employs some of the most talented forensic experts in the nation. These are the medical examiners and staff of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System (AFMES).
They first use dental records and fingerprints to ascertain an identification. If those aren’t available, they’ll compare the person’s DNA to DNA samples they have on record for every American soldier.
This type of forensic process is especially important for identifying historical remains, like those finally retrieved from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Gulf Wars.
Step 6: Autopsy and death certification
Next, medical examiners at Dover perform an autopsy, or “medical-legal examination,” to confirm and investigate the cause of death.
This is important to understand exactly what happened and ensure that it matches the government’s record of what happened. It also helps the U.S. DoDimprove medical care on the front lines and figure out what they can do better.
It’s only after the cause of death has been positively determined, and the individual has been positively identified, that the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System issues a death certificate. The process usually takes 24 hours, but it may take up to five days if DNA analysis is required.
Step 7: Embalming and restoration
After the autopsy, the body again becomes the responsibility of Mortuary Specialists. They first embalm the remains and thoroughly wash the body.
The body may have been embalmed previously, before being flown home to the United States. But a second embalming often takes place to prepare the body for its second flight.
Mortuary technicians also diligently restore the body using standard mortuary procedures. Because the trauma to a fallen soldier is often extensive, though, this requires additional skill.
Mortuary Specialists carefully wire bones together and reconstruct damaged tissue using wax. They may refer to photographs of the deceased to recreate intricate features, like wrinkles in the face, to create a “life-like” appearance.
The staff goes to this effort and dresses the soldier in uniform, even if the funeral is going to be closed-casket or if the body is to be cremated.
Step 8: Dressing in uniform
The Dover Port also houses a Uniform Shop, which assists with the final preparations of the deceased. The “shop” contains nearly every military uniform in various sizes, in addition to every award and decoration a soldier might earn. They use this regalia and these uniforms to dress soldiers for the final time.
Soldiers who work at the Uniform Shop go to painstaking detail to tailor the correct uniform to fit the fallen soldier, and to include all of the fallen soldier’s proper regalia.
The soldier is then dressed in their uniform one last time before being placed in a casket for transport back home.
Step 9: Decorating the casket
Before placing the casket on a military jet for its trip home, mortuary staff carefully places an American flag across the lid. The casket is handled by uniformed officers wearing pristine white gloves as it’s placed on the plane.
Step 10: Returning home
Finally, a military-contracted plane transports the soldier’s casket, draped in its American flag, back to his or her home state. The Air Force chooses an airport as close as possible to the family’s home.
Uniformed officers transport the casket off of the airplane, following a new procedure that was instated in 2005. Up until then, soldiers were transported home as cargo on commercial airlines and carried off the plane by airline baggage handlers.
The family can then bring the casket to their funeral home or to the cemetery for burial.
Step 11: Military funeral
After returning home or to the location of the chosen cemetery, many soldiers’ families hold military funerals. The ceremony can be simple, but it’s always attended by military personnel in uniform.
The family can also choose a religious ceremony, cremation, or direct burial if they wish.
Step 12: Final report
The AFMES usually issues their final report on the death within six to eight weeks. Family members can request a copy of the report by contacting the AFMES.
Dignity, Reverence, Respect
As you might have noticed, a military Mortuary Affairs Specialist or 92M takes on more than the typical mortuary tasks. They’re an enlisted and highly-trained member of the military, and they often travel into dangerous territory to retrieve the remains of America’s fallen soldiers.
Mortuary Affairs Specialists were among the first to land at Normandy during WWII, immediately going to work to care for the deceased. Amongst all that chaos, 92Ms painstakingly identified the bodies of the fallen and opened cemeteries to lay them to rest.
For more than 200 years, Mortuary Affairs Specialists have been the unsung heroes of the American military, diligently serving the deceased and their families. And this is demonstrated by the Mortuary Affairs Creed: “Dignity, Reverence, Respect.”
- “The sacred process at Dover Mortuary - Brad Meltzer.” APB Speakers. https://youtu.be/I3e57-FxDJY
- “Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations.” https://www.mortuary.af.mil/
- “Mortuary Affairs Specialists.” Today’s Military. https://www.todaysmilitary.com/careers-benefits/careers/mortuary-affairs-specialists
- Bourlier, Tommy. “Ode to the Mortuary Affairs Specialist - 92M.” U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps. https://quartermaster.army.mil/mac/jmac_ode.html
- Jones, Chris. “Inside the Return of America's Fallen at Dover Air Force Base.” Esquire. 29 October 2009. https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/news/a6683/dover-air-force-base-funeral-process-102909/
- Hamilton, Brian, Master Sgt. “To honor the fallen: inside the Dover Port Mortuary.” U.S. Army. 14 November 2017. https://www.army.mil/article/196779/to_honor_the_fallen_inside_the_dover_port_mortuary
- “The Armed Forces Medical Examiner System.” AFMES.