Getting the call that a client’s employee has passed away is something that most assistance providers will, unfortunately, be familiar with; and the repatriation of mortal remains (RMR) can be both emotionally taxing and logistically challenging. To ensure a smooth and timely outcome, both for the family of the deceased and the businesses involved, seamless co-ordination between a number of different parties, including international funeral directors and travel assistance companies, is key. Yet, working with different funeral directors around the world, each with different customs and practices, can be challenging.
Selecting the right service provider
Working with different funeral directors around the world, each with different customs and practices, can be challenging
Assistance providers should, ideally, have at least one funeral director with international experience in each country where there is organisational exposure. Despite the fact that the industry is very fragmented, generally speaking, there are four different structures that exist within the funeral industry:
- Individual funeral directors – Traditionally these are mostly family run parlours. Some may be government- appointed to provide services to foreigners, as in Vietnam or China. It’s important to note that, in this case, there is no control over the quality of service delivered, and the family or next of kin should be made aware of this.
- Group of funeral directors under one management – They form a network of funeral directors who work from the same operating protocols.
- Extended funeral directors and services – These organisations started in a niche market like mass casualty incidents, for example due to an air crash, and developed a suite of services off the back of this. Most have a global network and work on a membership basis.
- Assistance companies specialised in RMR – They operate a network of correspondents from a central base. The correspondents may or may not be qualified or vetted.
The quality of funeral directors (for each option and in each country) can range from poor to adequate to excellent; and not all funeral directors are licensed or permitted to perform RMRs. In some countries, like Ireland, individual funeral directors have been appointed by the government to operate in this space. Where this is the case, assistance providers should develop a working relationship with one of these approved directors.
But what should assistance companies look for in a local funeral assistance specialist in countries where they are not appointed by the government? Key things to consider include:
- What is their 24-hour in-house capability?
- What is the extent of their network?
- How do they select ‘correspondents’?
- How do they maintain their database, and is it relevant and up to date?
- How do they exert managerial oversight over their cases and their providers?
- Do they offer consultancy services on repatriation matters?
- Do they have the same values as your organisation and offer an integrated holistic approach to the repatriation, ensuring continuity of care to the family?
In addition to these considerations, at the very least, the funeral director should also have a working relationship with local authorities (including police and embassies), resources for storage of remains, embalming and/or cremation to International Air Transport Association (IATA) standards, and access to a credentialed forensic pathologist in the event an autopsy is mandated by the local authorities before RMR can be executed.
Upholding ideal merits
Beyond these essential requirements, there are also a number of merits that the chosen funeral director should ideally understand and be competent at handling. These include: the arrival of remains during a public holiday, the arrival of remains in an unacceptable state, airport closures, the return of personal belongings and clear and complete paperwork delivered in a timely manner. The transparency, communication skills and expertise of the chosen funeral director are critical to the success of these (and many other) factors.
But, in many countries, especially in emerging markets, a lot of these ideal merits may not apply. This is why it’s key that, from the outset, the assistance company sets expectations with the family/organisation and communicates how this complex process, with multiple steps and participants, can become a challenge – even in developed countries.
it’s key that, from the outset, the assistance company sets expectations with the family/organisation and communicates how this complex process, with multiple steps and participants, can become a challenge
Roles and responsibilities
There are a number of stakeholders involved in the RMR process, and it’s important that everyone, from the organisation to the funeral director and assistance provider, knows their responsibilities. There are too many individual responsibilities to explore in this article, but the below list gives an indication of just one thing each of the stakeholders mentioned should focus on:
- Assistance provider: advise local funeral director and consignee, and assess their capability.
- The organisation: share advice on any religious denomination.
- The family: confirm whether the remains are for viewing upon arrival home.
- Funeral director: explore transport options (taking into consideration which is the most direct, reliable and cost-effective option).
At the end of the day, it is the assistance provider (regardless of who they have engaged for support) that is in charge of co-ordinating the entire process. But, as there are many issues that the assistance provider cannot control – such as the release of the remains, overriding local laws, limitations of the tools/resources of the only funeral services – constant communication with the family and other stakeholders is key to the smooth running of any RMR process.