When someone dies abroad

Last week my son’s best friend died, in Croatia. Brandon was an experienced hiker, but fell off a mountain. He was 22.

Death is always traumatic, and usually we are unprepared for it, even when we expect it. But how do you cope when a loved one dies suddenly, thousands of miles from home, in a foreign country? After the shock, denial, and initial grief, the biggest problem one encounters in such a situation is, what now?

It’s estimated that 6,000 Americans die out of country every year. While some of those are permanent residents abroad, thousands still die vacationing away from home. For relatives receiving that information, the first inclination may be panic.

The circumstances of death and local law will dictate immediate actions and responses. But whatever the cause, the body usually will be taken to a morgue, funeral home or coroner’s office. Under international treaties, the embassy of origin will be contacted. This may be delayed if it is difficult to ascertain the identity or nationality of the dead. Extreme circumstances and natural disasters can make for an exception. After the Indian Ocean tsunami, many bodies, including westerners, were cremated en masse to prevent disease.

The clock starts ticking. Unclaimed bodies can be dealt with rather expeditiously, so a timely response is necessary. Due to a fear of contagion, in some third world countries the body is quickly – too quickly for some – disposed of. But let’s assume you’ve been informed a relative died overseas in a relatively civilized nation. Who you gonna call?

“We’re from the government and we’re here to help you.” Really, they are. The US Consul usually provides the first notification of death (using local police to tell you personally) based on passport information. This greatly reduces the stress of any delay in initiating an official response. Then, the consulate staff provides continuing assistance in the form of: identifying remains, taking custody of personal effects, and acting as a much needed intermediary with police and other authorities involved. Not fluent in Czech? They come in pretty handy. (Case in point, the original death certificate will likely be in the native language).

Once ‘next of kin’ has been found, they must execute a ‘Next-of-kin Affidavit’ and provide a signed ‘Letter of Instruction’ detailing their wishes for the body. In some cases where confirmation of the deceased is difficult, survivors may be asked to provide medical/dental records, or other information. (Note, a positive ID will be assumed with the presence of a wallet or passport, but authorities will need a more formal ID for a death certificate). If the departed was traveling with sizable assets (cash or jewelry worth more than $1,000), expect more precise requirements in the form of Letters Testamentary.

Be aware that your options may be limited. Until recently, cremation was unheard of in Israel. Embalming is not widely practiced in many countries. For example, in Laos, a body will be stored (refrigerated) for only 2 -3 days. If someone is in Laos to purchase embalming fluid and have it administered, they will store the body for seven days, but that’s it. (The Laos government advises families to fly remains to Thailand for embalming ASAP).

If the deceased was the victim of a crime, suicide, an act of terrorism, or died unattended or under suspicious circumstances, the death will be investigated by the appropriate authorities and the body will be autopsied. Some countries will waive an autopsy in certain situations at the request of the family.

If death resulted from illness, the body may be quarantined until other arrangements are made. In the event of an otherwise ‘unremarkable’ death (heart attack, etc.), the body will be held in the morgue.

If a person dies at sea, all cruise lines have morgues onboard. (They also have brigs). Some will take the body off the ship at the next decently equipped port, others sail all the way home with it. The latter is the easiest, cheapest, option. If the morgue fills up – and they do –you might not have a choice. Some ports of call will require the corpse to be offloaded. (Ships must report to port the number and status of all passengers). Dying in international waters, especially under suspicious circumstances, makes the situation with laws a bit murkier.

If the deceased died in an air crash involving an American-based carrier, the airline provides many administrative functions, using passenger manifests and their own staff to notify relatives. In at least one instance I recall, some details were sweated out (and paid for) by the American-branded hotel (the facility had been a terror target).

The main point here is you don’t have to go it alone in this time of distress.

The State Department, which has no funds to bring someone home, provides a method for transferring money to prepare a body for travel, ship a coffin, etc. (Some countries provide funding resources if the deceased was a victim of a violent crime and the family does not have sufficient resources).

Any form of remains traveling home, either body or cremains, need a formal death certificate issued by the local jurisdiction. In general, the process of ‘bringing them home’ is long, tedious and expensive. Be prepared for a lot of paperwork. Due to cost alone, most folks posthumously repatriated are cremated. (The consulate can usually provide a good cost estimate of various options). Local authorities can take as much as four or six weeks postmortem to provide their death certificate, although the consulate can help expedite this.

Once a death certificate is issued (and not until then), the Consul’s office will issue at least four copies of the ‘consular certificate of death’ (alternately, “Report of Death of An American Abroad” or “Foreign Service Report of Death”), to be used for all legal purposes. The consulate is also provisional executor of the deceased’s ‘estate,’ inventorying all the items left behind. The ‘diplomatic pouch’ cannot be used to transport personal effects, but can be used to transmit legal documents and such. Consider donating items of little value that would be costly to ship home.

The bureaucracy doesn’t end. The consulate will obtain a certificate from the local mortician attesting that remains being shipped are the deceased (and no one else), and certify how they were prepared (embalmed, cremated, etc.). They’ll also get a transit permit from local authorities issued at the port of embarkation. If no one accompanies the remains, a bill of lading will be issued for the casket or container by the airline carrier company, as well as a custom’s house permit for entry to the US. Note that an urn can be problematic for the TSA, and must be able to be x-rayed. Because of this, many cremains are returned in an ordinary cardboard container.

If you are bringing back unembalmed remains, the consular officer should alert US Customs and the US Public Health Service and provide one or more of the following: consular mortuary certificate, local death certificate (if available), affidavit of foreign funeral director, and a formal statement from competent foreign authorities stating that the individual did not die from a communicable disease, faxed in advance to the port of entry.

If your traveler died of a communicable disease and you wish to bring the body or other remains back, the CDC, acting under Federal quarantine regulations, may require a permit. The CDC will need assurances that the body/remains were handled in accordance with certain established procedures, which the consulate can provide. You’ll have to pick a local mortician to receive the remains that can act in compliance with applicable laws.

If you don’t wish to bring someone home, the Consulate can refer you to local funeral homes and provide information on local burial and cremation. They can also help guide you to local lawyers. Some can help you locate bereavement counseling. And, if the media’s calling, they can help deal with them, too.

One thing the consulate cannot do is investigate. That is strictly the purview of the local authorities. They can help you raise concerns about an investigation and facilitate communication. If you require the translation of police reports, autopsies and other reports, you may have to pay.

Since expenses related to all this can be great, it’s worth exploring if any travel insurance or other policies cover any of the expenses. Returning a body can run as much as $10 – 20K, and bringing back cremains can still cost $1,200 – $2,000 in total fees and costs. (They’re sent SPD – small package delivery).

Believe it or not, all the airlines have info on this on their sites but one notes that you can’t book services online. If you accompany remains home, ask about bereavement fares, but they’re not always cheaper. Also, you can insure the casket, but not the body. Transportation of human remains is airport-to-airport, from there you’ll need a hearse.

If the travel was employment-related, there may reimbursement options there. It sounds crass, but you should process a request for reimbursement of any unused tickets or other travel expenses not used. Cancel return plane tickets before they would have been used, if possible.

Dealing with death is never pleasant. When it happens in unfamiliar territory, it’s good to have the resources of a government agency at your disposal.