While rare, it does happen, hikers, hunters, and others out enjoying the day do stumble upon recent and not so recent human remains. What would you do in this case, what is the law, and what should you do as a practical matter.
In some states, like Utah, for example, it is a felony in the third degree for anyone besides an archaeologist, a Medical Examiner, law enforcement or a licensed mortician to disturb, remove, or conceal human remains. Many states have similar laws regarding this, in particular when it comes to ancient grave sites and sacred sites of Native Americans.
What are you required to do by law? In Washington State, for example, you are required by law to notify the County Coroner and local law enforcement, and you must do it in the most expeditious manner possible if you find suspected human remains. Of course expeditious can be subjective. You may not have cell service in that area, so you have to wait until you get back to notify anyone, and this could take hours, so your best judgment would have to be sufficient.
The law in Washington State goes on to state, “Any person engaging in ground disturbance activities that resulted in the exposure of human remains must cease all activity which may cause further disturbance to the remains” (Washington State Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation, 2017).
Documenting the scene, without disturbing the scene, with pictures or sketching a map of the area may make sense in some cases, as well as, noting GPS coordinates. You may have to lead law enforcement back to the scene. Some people simply would not, or could not wait for police and others to arrive if they called the authorities from the scene. If you call and identify yourself, and then leave, it is likely the police would want to talk to you in person about the discovery and/or ask for you help in locating the remains.
States have various laws so it is a good idea to know what they are. Of course, if you are alone and do stumble upon a body or bones you have a decision to make. Discoveries of this nature are traumatic and it takes some time for the fact to register. A body or bones on the ground in a place you do not expect them is incomprehensible for the first few minutes. It is shocking, and some may actually run from the area. Some may want to avoid any involvement altogether, and others may even decide it’s an inconvenience and simply do not want to waste time dealing with it and leave without notifying anyone. It is decision time, if you find remains, and what you decide is up to you.
As a practical matter, however, you need to keep your wits about you from this point on. Is this a crime scene, how recent is it if that is the case, and are you in any danger. Hikers, hunters and others do die in the woods from natural causes, and from accidents, and their remains may lay there for months or even years, or they may have passed on just minutes before you arrived.
On the other hand, remote areas are ideal dumping grounds for those wishing to get rid of a body. People that commit murder may drive for miles to dispose of the body, or two or more people out hiking or hunting may have gotten into a fight resulting in the death of one, so you want to ensure you are safe first and foremost. The person or persons responsible for the dead body may still be in the area.
Remains that have been in the woods for months or years are someone’s loved one. Someone disappears and the body is not found, so perhaps, you finding remains in the woods would solve a cold case file that could bring closure to a family. It doesn’t mean there was a crime committed. The person may have gotten lost and fell victim to the elements, a heart attack, or a bee sting and so on.
Coming upon human remains will leave you with a feeling of horror in some cases, unease at the very least, and with other feelings, you cannot quite describe. It also reminds you of your own mortality. For some, the feelings will remain for weeks, months or even years. They will diminish over time, however. You are human and there are things such as this in which you may have to deal with as you go through life.
Washington State Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation. (2017). Retrieved 2017, from http://www.dahp.wa.gov/programs/human-remains-program/what-do-i-do