As the planet continues to warm and change, people around the world will face more large-scale natural disasters. Rescuing survivors is a priority, but in resource-strapped countries like India, putting processes in place to manage the dead is also crucial.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami “laid bare India’s own lack of forensic infrastructure,” writes Deepa Padmanaban. In this Fifty Two feature, Padmanaban details what improvements the country must make to better prepare teams in times of emergency — not just first responder training, but victim identification and, as a result, more support and compassionate care for victims’ families. Padmanaban notes that Argentinian grandmothers in the late 1970s were the first people to suggest forensics as a way to identity victims — their abducted daughters and grandchildren — and goes on to describe how fields like forensic odontology (looking at the teeth of the dead) can be a reliable process of victim identification in India.

Prioritising the living over the dead is a given. But the dead have an afterlife, particularly for their families, and ignoring them has terrible consequences, both in the matter of emotional closure, and other, material ones. In the absence of a positive identification and death certificate, families can only report their loved ones as “missing.” Their lives can, quite literally, be put on hold.

This is at the heart of the humanitarian approach to forensics, a shift from the more traditional approach that deals with criminal investigations, law and order, and evidence. For survivors, humanitarian forensics helps provide closure, and a chance to face the future with a measure of peace. For state agencies and record keepers, it offers a chance to plan for and protect the fragile future of all humans.

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.