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When a Passenger Dies at Sea: What You Need to Know
Home > Features > Senior Cruises > When a Passenger Dies at Sea: What You Need to Know

People die every day, even on vacation, even on a cruise. Sadly, this happens more often than one might think. According to the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office, which is where any deaths on cruise ships based in Fort Lauderdale must be reported, some 66 people have died on Fort Lauderdale-based cruise ships between January 2010 and August, 2013.

While no cruise line would give Cruise Critic an exact number of deaths per year, one cruise line insider who asked to remain anonymous said, up to three people die per week on cruises world-wide, particularly on lines that typically carry older passengers..

But what happens when a passenger passes away while at sea or in a foreign port? What happens to the person's body? And what do that passenger's family or friends have to do? Here, we take a closer look.

How Do Cruise Lines Help Family and Friends?

It is impossible for a person to be prepared for a loved one's death, but the cruise lines are, and they're quick to step in to help.

"Our crew is proactive," says Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokesperson for Carnival Cruise Lines. The line has procedures in place for dealing with these situations, including employees specifically trained to provide emotional and logistical support to grieving loved ones.

Irrespective of cruise line, when a passenger dies on a cruise ship, someone from the company's Guest Care Team is immediately assigned to help the deceased's family and friends.

"Care Team members are trained to deal with grieving people, but they are not grief counselors," de la Cruz explained. "They are trained to help deal with the details of repatriating a body and contact[ing] a funeral home." In addition to helping friends and families work with local authorities, make travel arrangements and deal with insurance, Care Team members will provide free Internet and phone use onboard. They'll drive the deceased person's travel companions to a hotel if they choose to disembark the ship and even stay with them until they can return home. They also do post-cruise followup.

How Do You Get Your Loved One Home?

The biggest concern many loved ones face is how to bring the body home from the ship for burial. Whether the body must be immediately repatriated from a foreign port or can stay onboard depends on where the ship is at the time.

Bodies can be stored in shipboard morgues as needed. Each oceangoing cruise ship is required to carry body bags and maintain a morgue. Separate from food storage areas, most morgues are small, with room for three to six bodies.

On standard Caribbean sailings, remains are typically kept in the onboard morgue until the ship returns to the United States where a death certificate can be issued by the local medical examiner's office, de la Cruz said.

But when the ship is far from its homeport or doesn't have a homeport, the body must be repatriated from somewhere.

It's not always easy. When someone dies on a South Pacific sailing, his body will most likely remain in the ship's morgue until the ship returns to a more major port, as few, if any, of the islands on such an itinerary are equipped to handle repatriation. Likewise, authorities in many small African and Asian ports with third-world infrastructures will often refuse to allow human remains off the ship. However, alternatives can be found if necessary, such as when a ship won't be visiting a larger port anytime soon.

For example, after a Paul Gauguin passenger died on a small island in the South Pacific, the body was first brought back to the ship but then transported to a local hospital in Raiatea where it was stored until it could be sent to Papeete, Tahiti. From there, the family of the deceased was able to coordinate with the cruise line's port agent to send the body back to the United States.

Generally speaking, the first large port city the ship calls at is where the body will be offloaded, taken to a medical examiner's office and repatriated. But each country has its own rules and regulations about accepting bodies, declaring cause of death and repatriating remains.

That's where consular offices come in handy. U.S. consulates, for instance, will help the family of the deceased in making arrangements with local authorities for preparation and disposition of the remains. They'll even serve as provisional conservator of the person's estate if no one else is able to do it.

But neither the consulate nor the cruise line pays for anything; they only help the family make arrangements. And repatriation, with all its necessary paperwork and hassle, is not inexpensive. Most trip insurance plans, however, do cover the bulk of these expenses.

So, while no one wants to talk about the possibility of death during a cruise, if you or someone you're sailing with is ill or in the later years of life, purchasing a travel insurance policy is highly recommended by cruise industry insiders.

--By Dori Saltzman, News Editor





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