If your loved one dies abroad, it can feel overwhelming. There will be countless bureaucratic hoops you will have to go through in order to claim the body. Don’t let this discourage you because there are also many systems in place to help people who are in your exact situation.
Every year, hundreds of American citizens die while traveling abroad. Bloomberg Business reports that over the past 10 years more than 8,000 Americans died abroad of unnatural causes. So what happens when an American dies outside of the country?
This article is designed to help you return the body of a loved one step-by-step.
Contact the US Consulate or Embassy
the United States has a Consulate or Embassy in almost every single country in the world. When a U.S. citizen dies abroad, U.S. consular officers from the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs will assist families in making arrangements with local authorities for preparation and disposition of the remains. The US Consulate will be your best resource for dealing with a foreign government.
The Bureau of Consular Affairs will assists the ‘next of kin’ to convey instructions to the appropriate offices to make contact with within the foreign country, and will provide assistance on how to transfer the funds necessary to cover the funeral arrangement costs.
To identify yourself as 'next of kin', a Next of Kin Affidavit must be completed. A signed Letter of Instruction, detailing your wishes for the body must also be completed. All these documents will be provided by the US Embassy. These documents are also available online.
In some cases where confirmation of the deceased is difficult, the next of kin may be asked to provide medical/dental records, or other information to confirm the identity.
The consular officer will prepare the Consular Mortuary Certificate, which ensures orderly shipment of remains and facilitates U.S. Customs clearance. The certificate confirms essential information concerning the cause of death.
Upon issuance of a local 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 U.S. courts to settle estate matters.
Keep in mind that any form of remains traveling home, either body or cremains, need a formal death certificate issued by the local jurisdiction. Visit our Common Questions section which provides information on traveling through TSA airport security with an urn with cremation ashes.
What Are the Circumstance of the Death?
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 authorities, and the body will be autopsied. Some countries will waive an autopsy in certain situations at the request of the family.
If death resulted from illness, the body may be quarantined until other arrangements are made. In the event of an otherwise unremarkable death (heart attack, etc.), the body will be held in the morgue.
If a person dies at sea, all cruise lines have morgues on board, as well as procedures in place to handle the death of a passenger. Some cruise ships will take the body off the ship at the next decently equipped port, others sail all the way home with it.
In most cases, the body will take a while before being sent back to the United States. It can take 4 to 6 weeks just to have the autopsy completed. The pace of this process is normally dictated by the busyness and competency of the local government. Laws, regulations, and traditions will vary from city to city and country to country.
If you are bringing back un-embalmed remains, the consular officer will have to alert US Customs and the US Public Health Service.
The documentation you will need:
- consular mortuary certificate
- local death certificate
- affidavit of a foreign funeral director
- formal statement from competent foreign authorities stating that the individual did not die from a communicable disease
If they died of a communicable disease and you wish 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 protocols.
Affidavit of Foreign Funeral Director and Transit Permit
The 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.
U.S. Entry Requirements for Quarantine and Customs
If the remains have been embalmed than all that is needed is the affidavit and consular mortuary certificate (death certificate).
Once a death certificate is issued, the Consul’s office will issue four copies of the ‘consular certificate of death’ (alternately referred to as “Report of Death of An American Abroad” or “Foreign Service Report of Death”.
The consulate is also a provisional executor of the deceased’s ‘estate,’ inventorying all the items left behind. If the departed was traveling with sizable assets (cash or jewelry worth more than $1,000), expect more precise requirements in the form of Letters Testamentary.
The consulate will obtain a certificate from the local mortician attesting that remains being shipped are the deceased (and no one else’s) and certify how they were prepared.
If no one accompanies the remains, a bill of lading will be issued for the casket or container by the airline carrier company. Note that a cremation urn can be problematic for the TSA because it must be able to be x-rayed. Because of this, many cremains are returned in an ordinary cardboard container.
If You Don’t Wish To Bring the Body Back Home
If you do not want to bring the recently deceased remains back home, the consulate can refer you to local funeral homes and provide information on local burial and cremation. This solution is far more simple and cost-effective, however, some people prefer to have the body returned for a more official memorial service. If you do decide to have the loved one cremated abroad, it is much less expensive to return the ashes of the loved one.
Restrictions on Consulate
A consulate has no role in the investigation of anything that might have happened while abroad. They also have no role in seeking persecution or justice for any crimes that may have been committed abroad. That is strictly the responsibility of the local authorities. The consulate can only help you raise concerns about an investigation and facilitate communication.
How to Make the Process Quicker
Get a Lawyer
The consulate can also help you find a local lawyer to help you navigate local laws and regulations. Hiring a lawyer is also a good idea in instances where the death will draw attention from local media sources.
Hiring a translator will be a good idea in any situation where there is a language barrier preventing effective communication. A translator may also have some knowledge of local customs and regulations. The US Consulate will be able to help you in this regard.
Have Person Cremated Overseas and Have the Cremains Returned
Bringing back someone's ashes (cremains) is much more simple and cost-effective. It does not require a Bill of Lading, nor does it require clearance and transit permits. In fact, if you wish to you can mail the cremains by commercial service.
Have a Knowledgeable Funeral Home in the US to Help You
If you wish to return the body, then you will need a funeral home that you can work within the US. It helps to have a funeral home that has experience in dealing with overseas deaths and receiving the body since they will already have an understanding of the process.
To figure out if the funeral home has the right experience, just call around and ask. Also, you will want to make sure that the funeral home can accommodate any time differences that may be involved. As most funeral homes operate on a 9-5 schedule, they may be closed when the foreign funeral home or consulate needs to be in touch with them, so make sure that the funeral home you hire is willing to work on different schedule for you.
I hope this guide helps clear some confusion and gives you some guidance in dealing with a loved one dying overseas.
Check out How to Plan a Funeral from Beginning to End: A Step by Step Guide for information on effectively planning the funeral back home.