In the average year, between five and ten thousand citizens of the United States die abroad. Many are tourists but there are also large numbers of business travelers and expatriates. What is revealing is that while ill health was a major factor in the deaths, more died from injuries sustained in traffic accidents and other such catastrophic events.
Death abroad not only has the usual turmoil that any death can cause, but immediately exposes the surviving family to additional challenges of interacting with local authorities, moving the loved one’s body back home, and handling the claims of third parties connected with the cause of death.
Whatever the cause of death, the wise traveler takes a few simple steps before leaving home and can save the family much anxiety and financial hardship if tragedy strikes. By carrying certain documents when abroad and leaving photocopies of them with friends or family at home the process can be eased a great deal and help survivors cope with the practicalities of your death.
This article shall briefly describe the basic process and make suggestions for the traveler who is going abroad as well as the family confronting an untimely death abroad.
The Basic Process:
When an United States citizen dies abroad, the local United States Bureau of Consular Affairs located in that country is charged to assist the family and friends. The Bureau of Consular Affairs attempts to locate and inform the next-of-kin of the citizen’s death. The Bureau of Consular Affairs provides information on how to make arrangements for local burial or return of the remains to the United States. Note that the disposition of remains is subject to United States and local (foreign) law, United States and foreign customs requirements, and the foreign country facilities, which are often vastly different from those in the United States.
It is vital to realize that a person is subject to the laws of the nation in which he or she dies. The local process controls and that can be extremely different from what a United States citizen is used to. (As an example, up to some years ago, one could not be cremated in Israel.)
In most nations, the first step is for a registrar or similar authority in the country where the death occurred to issue a death report or certificate. Depending on local practice and the circumstances of death, the process can be quick or can take weeks or even months. Only then can the United States Consulate in that nation issue a "Report of Death of a U.S. Citizen Abroad," which is required to settle an estate and provide dependents with funds they may need to live on back in the United States. Without such a death certificate, there would be no life insurance pay out or probate since the family cannot prove the death.
Even to ship remains back to the United States, survivors will also need a mortuary certificate, generally prepared by the United States Consulate, and various other local documents.
The Role of the United States Consulate
After an American dies abroad, the person's traveling companions or next of kin should contact the United States Consulate or embassy, whose officials can help explain and speed the process. Note that consular officials cannot overrule local regulations. The Consulate also has no funds to ship a body home. Flying a body and casket home can cost as little as $500 or as much as $2500.00 or more, depending on the airline, destination and the weight. That does not include mortuary costs.
The Department of State has no funds to assist in the return of remains or ashes of United States citizens who die abroad. The Bureau of Consular Affairs assists the next-of-kin to convey instructions to the appropriate offices within the foreign country and provides information to the family on how to transmit the necessary private funds to cover the costs overseas. Upon issuance of a local (foreign) death certificate, the nearest embassy or consulate may prepare a Consular Report of the Death of an American Abroad. Copies of that report are provided to the next-of-kin or legal representative and may be used in United States courts to settle estate matters.
Further, the consular officer overseas has statutory responsibility for the personal estate of a citizen who dies abroad if the deceased has no legal representative or next-of-kin in the country where the death occurred, subject to local law. In that situation, the consular officer takes possession of personal effects, such as jewelry, personal documents and papers, and clothing. The consular officer prepares an inventory of the personal effects and then carries out instructions from the legal representative or next-of-kin concerning the effects.
Return of Remains of Deceased U.S. Citizens
Consular officers normally assist families in making arrangements with local authorities for preparation and disposition of the remains. Options available to a family depend upon local law and practice in the foreign country.
Both United States and foreign law require the following documents before remains can be sent from one country to another:
Consular mortuary certificate,
Affidavit of local funeral director,
And transit permit.
Additional documents may be required depending on the circumstances of the death. The consular officer will ensure that all required documents accompany the remains to the United States.
The local (foreign) funeral director executes an affidavit attesting to the fact that the casket contains only the remains of the deceased and the necessary clothing and packing materials. The affidavit may also state that the remains have been embalmed or otherwise prepared. In addition, local health authorities at the port of embarkation will issue a transit permit, which will accompany the remains.
In general, if remains have been embalmed, the documents outlined above will satisfy United States public health requirements. If the foreign death certificate is not available at the time the remains are returned, the consular mortuary certificate must reference the fact that the deceased did not die from a quarantinable disease and that the remains have been embalmed.
If a passenger does not accompany the remains, the airline carrier must issue a bill of lading to cover the transport. At the point of departure, the airline carrier will obtain the customs house permit for entry to the United States.
If the remains are not embalmed, the consular officer will alert United States Customs and the United States Public Health Service in advance, faxing copies of the 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. This statement generally is required even if the exact cause of death is unknown in order for unembalmed remains to enter the United States.
Other Issues to Consider:
Americans are often unaware that local governments and customs can have their own requirements. Embalming is not widely practiced in many countries. For example, in Laos, a body will be stored (refrigerated) for only two or three days. If someone in Laos attempts to arrange embalming, the local mortuary will normally only agree to increase storage of the body to seven days. The fluid would have to be imported into the country along with the expertise, difficult at any time and nearly impossible under time pressure. The Laotian government advises families to fly remains to Thailand for embalming.
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 local authorities and the body will be autopsied. Some countries will waive an autopsy in certain situations at the request of the family. Most do not allow such a waiver. This process can take weeks or even months and the result of the autopsy may require that the body be kept locally while police investigate further.
If a person dies at sea, all cruise lines have morgues onboard. Many lines will remove the body at the next port, others may sail all the way home with the body. 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 complex and, if possible, the family should try to have the body returned to the United States.
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 the traveler died of some communicable disease and kin wishes 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.
If kin elects not to bring someone home, the Consulate can refer to local funeral homes and provide information on local burial and cremation. They can also help guide the family to local lawyers. Some can help locate bereavement counseling. And, if the media is calling, they can help deal with them as well.
One thing the consulate cannot do is investigate. That is strictly the purview of the local authorities. They can help raise concerns about an investigation and facilitate communication. Since expenses related to all this can be significant one should consider travel insurance or other policies to cover any of the expenses. If you accompany remains home, there may be bereavement fares available. Transportation of human remains is airport-to-airport, from there you’ll need a hearse.
Advance Steps to Make It Easier for the Family:
Before you leave, it makes sense to arrange your documents in a way that survivors will be able to handle the ordeal with the least amount of problems. Make copies and provide to kin the following:
A copy of your passport and other identification papers. A list of emergency contacts and next of kin, a note stating what you want done with your remains, and a durable-power-of-attorney document In California, log on to caag.state.ca.us and search for "advance health care directive."
Travel insurance’s cost is usually modest and its benefits substantial; for example, it can help with transportation costs for the deceased and travel mates.
Before going abroad, register your itinerary and emergency contacts with the State Department. You can do this online at travel.state.gov. (Click on "international travel," then "registration with embassies" from the menu on the left side.)
Provide emergency contacts on your passport application form. Do the same on the passport when you receive it.
When abroad, carry phone numbers, addresses and e-mail addresses not only for your next of kin but also for your doctor and dentist. In the absence of other information, medical records may be the only way to identify a person's remains.
Carry a brief note stating whether you want to be cremated or buried and the type of funeral service you want.
Death of a family member or friend is always traumatic but abroad can be particularly difficult. Some intelligent preparation for travel can make a tremendous difference but most travelers to not engage in such “morbid” planning and it is usually up to the survivor to wade through the bureaucracy.
Business travelers for larger companies often have support from the home office but those without that help must plan on a complex and unpleasant experience with some help from the Counselor’s office. The traveler who takes advance steps can help survivors wade through the bureaucracy.