The ins and outs of funeral repats
Understanding the processes, challenges and protocols inherent in the funeral repatriation industry is key for those who partner with such companies in the global travel and medical assistance arena. Fiona Greenwood shares her unique personal insights into this industry
Since the 1970s, emergency assistance and repatriation has kept pace with travel trends and the increasing demands of passengers moving around the world. Our company chairman Tony Rowland recalls introducing repatriation services from European resorts almost 50 years ago, with conversations about cover and exclusions during the early days of package holidays and travel insurance. Then and now, exclusions and financial limits apply, but expectations around cost, service and timeframe have never been greater, both across the industry and among the travelling public.
A unique story
News travels fast, especially bad news. Bereaved families sometimes react emotionally and automatically by setting a date for the funeral, expecting the briefest interlude between the death in one country and the funeral in another. Expectations are usually built on their experience of a bereavement and funeral at home, which unfortunately does not prepare them for a process which merges regulations across two countries thousands of miles apart.
It’s a fact, funerals and repatriations need documents. Documents issued by one authority have to be adapted to meet the needs of another. Local authorities around the world record the death, permit a burial, cremation or transfer of a deceased to another country. While some countries are introducing computer-generated forms, paper-free repatriation seems unlikely. When we travel as passengers, we need identification, and the papers that bring the deceased home work on a similar basis, dovetailing civil records from one country with home government formalities.
The documents that accompany the coffin or urn tell the unique story of the deceased to officials at the point of departure and destination. Translations, legalisations, permits, and consular registration are essential and swell the bundle for some countries, whereas others only expect minimal paperwork. Different governments take different approaches. Some need to know the cause of death, others can accept that it is still under investigation at the time of repatriation; some issue permits free of charge while others charge a fee. Attention to detail is important. Certificates issued with errors take time to correct and cause delays. Families are already distressed and documents that are incorrect are a secondary blow, potentially delaying the funeral and possibly estate matters too.
While mistakes can be corrected, living with a different identity can compromise the chance of a funeral at home as we learnt recently, when a gentleman died using a false identity in London, with no records in his true identity to support his repatriation home.
It’s important to listen carefully and share information that could affect funeral decisions
Some faiths expect the funeral within days. Some designate cremation, others burial. Some families have no faith but will have funeral preferences and also expect their loved one home promptly. We cannot change local jurisdiction or process, and naturally we sympathise when families feel thwarted by local regulations. It’s important to listen carefully and share information that could affect funeral decisions; for example, if embalming is unavoidable or cremation is not an option in that country. Cumulative experience among our network of trusted partners helps to set realistic expectations, so assistance teams know if there are limitations and families can make an informed choice from the available options.
Tragedies abroad can attract huge media interest, potentially adding further distress to emotionally charged situations. Recent reports in the British press include the crash into the English Channel of a light aircraft that was carrying a footballer to his new club; the fatal consequences of a nut allergy in a holiday resort; and an inquest into the deaths of three young friends who died on holiday in Vietnam. Does media coverage help or hinder? If finance is a problem, crowdfunding might help, so publicity could be a friend rather than a foe. But heart-breaking press releases are often followed by a plea for privacy, which means the press is looking elsewhere for news about flights and funerals. We need to be on our guard. Now the combination of GDPR and agreed communication protocols set by individual assistance companies reassures everyone that information will not be shared without express consent, even with other family members.
Emotional reactions to tragic news vary from numb to angry and tearful and pass through all points in between. When strong emotions are directed at us, we know they are not personal, but demonstrate the impact of a life-changing situation that feels beyond someone’s control. When families make a funeral repatriation claim, we believe that starting arrangements straight away works best. If families know that progress is being made while medical history is explored, it allays anxiety, and promotes confidence between family, assistance provider, underwriter and funeral repatriation provider. It can minimise storage costs, and complaints about delay or deterioration while a medical history review is underway.
We can’t change what has happened, but when we can avoid waiting, families are always grateful.
GDPR and agreed communication protocols set by individual assistance companies reassures everyone that information will not be shared without express consent
We talk about families but what is the definition of a family in the 21st Century? More importantly, who is entitled to give funeral instructions? Any disagreements must be resolved. For example, the parents of common law partners might step aside and allow the surviving partner to make funeral decisions. Equally, the parents could decide to assert their rights and give their own instructions if they are still legally next of kin. Separation can complicate matters too. Relationships are sensitive. Long-lost siblings or family members estranged from each other for many years may still feel obliged to step up and take care of arrangements, while others dismiss the idea emphatically. The fact that someone is listed as next of kin on a passport does not necessarily mean they will accept any financial responsibility for funeral arrangements.
Fortunately, rules around deaths, funerals and repatriation are more predictable. In England and Wales, for example, deaths from natural causes are normally registered within five days, but the coroner always investigates sudden deaths to establish who died, where, how and why, arranging a postmortem to find the medical cause, and an investigation or inquest if necessary.
Identification is critical. Visual identification is not always reliable, so DNA or dental records may be necessary. If tissue or organ samples are taken, next of kin are notified. This notification is a legal requirement in England and Wales, but not automatic in other countries, causing great distress if the information is unexpectedly received months later.
If someone is charged by law enforcement in connection with a death, the defence team can request its own postmortem.
If there is a criminal prosecution, the inquest is suspended. If not, evidence is heard at the coroner’s inquest, and the conclusion is recorded on the final death certificate. The coroner provides an interim death certificate and permission for burial cremation or repatriation as soon as practically possible, but the whole process can take months, and in high-profile mass casualty events even longer.
Tragedy strikes unexpectedly, on ships, on planes, on holidays, on business trips, and communication around what happens next is key
While local rules set the terms for any investigation, nationality, faith and destination determine what happens next. For example, in London for a funeral in Paris, detailed paperwork is processed by the French consulate and the coffin is sealed before starting the journey home. It remains closed in France, so it must be suitable for transportation and also the funeral. As France is geographically close, relatives might come to London to see their loved one for the last time before the coffin is sealed.
By comparison, if the funeral was to be on the other side of the world in New Zealand, there is no need to visit the NZ High Commission in London for documents or to seal the coffin, which can be opened for viewing at home. So, although this is the longest journey, it is the simplest in terms of administration, but more expensive due to the cost of the flight. From other countries to these same destinations, there may be additional layers of administration, depending on conventions that apply around documents in the country of origin.
Viewing is always an emotional topic. Expectations must be managed to ensure that families and consignees understand any concerns. Storage, postmortem, cause of death, infection, objections to embalming all contribute to condition, which needs careful explanation. Even when flights are confirmed and the deceased is at the airport, delays or strikes or security alerts can conspire to undo all our good work. We all need a little help to look our best at the end of a long journey home, and it’s vital that condition is checked before families and friends pay their respects.
Thousands of families have been bereaved away from home, but no two funeral repatriation arrangements are the same. Tragedy strikes unexpectedly, on ships, on planes, on holidays, on business trips, and communication around what happens next is key. Global funeral assistance combines 360-degree knowledge with experience and empathy, cultural awareness, logistics and people skills. Once families are home, we step away as they move on to the next stage, the funeral arrangements. We don’t expect families to remember exactly what we did, or what we said, but they will always remember how we made them feel when they encountered such a difficult time in their lives.