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What Happens if You Die on Vacation?

Travel Safety
by Matthew Meltzer Mar 5, 2020

Morbid as it might be to say this, there is always a chance you might die on vacation. No, we’re not trying to be alarmist. Or suggest that there is anything, anywhere in the world, going on right now that might increase the chances of said vacation expiration. But to be totally philosophical, nothing in life is guaranteed, and on the off chance you or someone you love dies while they’re traveling abroad, it’s good to know what the next steps are to get your body home.

The short story is that it’s not easy. Or at least so says Matt Napiltonia, the former Navy SEAL and Army Medical Services Officer who now serves as the Senior Operations Officer for Global Rescue. Among other things, his company handles getting mortal remains transported across borders, and he broke down for us what happens from the minute you die to the time your body gets on a plane home.

Paperwork abounds when you die on vacation.

Dying on vacation isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Some people die while climbing a mountain in the Himalayas. Some have a heart attack in a Paris hotel room. So the first consideration in transporting remains is getting the body from the site of death to a hospital. This carries with it some concerns, as some locales can be dicey places for retrieving bodies.

“Laying on the side of the road, (local authorities) might take you, but we do point of injury rescue,” Napiltonia says. “We have to think, ‘Do we go get the body at that altitude where we put more people at risk to get it or is that their burial?’ These are real questions.”

Once the body has been transported to a hospital, the next step is to contact the nearest embassy or consulate of your home country. The process from this point forward is going to be an endless parade of paperwork and administrative frustration, and while the consulate won’t do it for you, they can at least point you in the right direction.

“It’s a tremendous amount of paperwork,” Napiltonia says, “and the consular services officer helps with getting the mortuary certificate, the transit permit. If we run into a roadblock getting that from the local government, the officer steps in and helps receive that documentation.”

At the hospital, you’ll need to get clearance from the medical examiner before you can move the body to a funeral home. In some cases, this also requires clearing local law enforcement if they believe there has been any sort of foul play. While that’s not completely common, it can happen if someone dies under mysterious circumstances, and police must finish their investigation before the hospital will release the body.

Things also get complicated if you happen to die of some kind of infectious disease. In this case, the body will likely be quarantined, which will mean working with local health authorities to get it cleared as soon as it is safely possible.

“Depending on the illness, the body will be quarantined for a set time with the country’s public health people,” Napiltonia explains. “So, for example, smallpox, Ebola, botulism HIV, Hantavirus, those all require special handling. We have to work with the equivalent of Health and Human Services to get the transport done properly. But if you have Ebola or something [some countries] won’t let that body go intact, and they would cremate that individual.”

Assuming you die of something other than murder or infectious disease, your body will then need to be transported to a local funeral home, where it is either embalmed or cremated, according to the family’s wishes. This involves yet more paperwork and coordination with local facilities that can properly prepare the body.

Once the body is ready, you then need to find an airline that transports mortal remains. If a body has been cremated, some commercial airlines will accept it as cargo. If it hasn’t, you’ll need to find a special casket designed for carrying bodies in-flight and will likely need to use DHL or another international cargo carrier for transport. The airlines know how to handle all of this, but you still need to coordinate it with them.

And, of course, you’ll need to get the body cleared through customs.

“While you’re getting all your clearances, you must also get final government customs clearance,” Napiltonia says. “You have to notify the host country that you have mortal remains, and you tell them you have all your paperwork and clearances in order to get the body from point A to point B. And there’s no telling how long that all might take.”

This might be of particular concern for people of Muslim or Jewish faiths, whose religious laws dictate a body must be buried within 24-48 hours. This, of course, is not always possible, especially when miles from home.

“We’ve been fortunate to get folks transported and buried very quickly,” Napiltonia says. “But if there’s any police involvement or suspicious nature, that’s not gonna happen. Unless you want them buried in the country where they died, so the family has to make a decision. Do they want to honor custom and have them buried [elsewhere], or do you wait two to three weeks?”

That said, moving bodies is not always a logistical nightmare, even in countries where bureaucracy and government inefficiency are notorious. Napiltonia tells of a time when he was able to get a Muslim client cleared through Nigeria in 48 hours and on a plane home to the Middle East. But he also tells of times where he’s had to direct team members to drop all of their other duties and work 12-hour shifts for weeks to get a body cleared through local law enforcement.

The point is, the level of red tape is never consistent, so the relative frustrations and timing are unpredictable.

Obviously, using a service like Global Rescue — which sells memberships to international travelers who think they might need emergency services — is the easiest way to navigate through this unpleasant world of dying on vacation. But not everyone has that kinda cash, so it’s good to have a plan just in case. Even if you don’t anticipate a dangerous trip, talk through what you want done with your family and look up contact information for the local consular services office. Then trust that you’ll never have to use it.

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