How Does Body Repatriation Work for US Citizens?

Updated

If someone you love dies while traveling abroad, you might want to return their body to the United States for burial. This is called body repatriation. 

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Repatriating a body may seem like a logistical nightmare, and it is certainly complex. But in the long run, body repatriation can allow for closure and comfort in knowing that your loved one’s body is safely back home. 

So, where do you begin when it comes to body repatriation? Below, we’ll walk you through the basics of repatriating a body, how long it takes, and how much it usually costs. Then, we’ll provide a step-by-step guide that you can follow if you’re taking on the task of body repatriation to the United States. 

What is Body Repatriation?

Body repatriation is the process of transporting a person’s remains (either their body or their ashes) back to their citizen country. As long as your loved one is a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the US, their remains should be able to be returned to the United States. 

Agencies for body repatriation  

If you want to repatriate a loved one’s body to the United States, you’ll work with the closest US embassy or consulate where your loved one died, as well as your local funeral home. 

Here’s what you need to know about the agencies you’ll work with when repatriating a body: 

US embassy or consulate

When a US citizen dies in another country, it’s the nearest US embassy’s responsibility or consulate to report the death to the US Department of State. The embassy is also responsible for reporting the death to the person’s closest known relative or legal representative.

Funeral director 

Once notified of the death, you’ll work with the consulate to begin the process of body repatriation. 

You’ll also work with a funeral director who’s experienced in body repatriation. They must also be registered as a “known shipper” with an airline to ship and receive a repatriated body. 

It’s a good idea to contact a funeral director immediately, as the process can be confusing and overwhelming without assistance. 

Travel insurance brokers, tour operators, and employers 

Other agencies that might be involved in the process of repatriation include your loved one’s travel insurance agency, a tour operator if they were on an organized tour, and their employer if they were working overseas. 

Your options when a loved one dies abroad

If your loved one dies while traveling or working in a foreign country, you have several options for the disposition of their remains.

Preparation and return of embalmed remains 

This is the most widely-accepted form of body repatriation when it comes to crossing international borders. Transporting a body from any foreign nation back to the United States, whether by air or sea, involves a lengthy travel process. 

To keep the body from decomposing over the journey, it’s often treated and embalmed in the country where the person passes away. 

Return of unembalmed remains 

You don’t necessarily have to have your loved one’s remains embalmed before shipping the body back to the United States. 

The body must always be enclosed in a hermetically sealed casket or alternative container, even if it is embalmed. This ensures that the body has limited exposure to outside air. You can also choose to pack the body in dry ice as an alternative to embalming. 

However, some countries, airlines, and even funeral homes have their own regulations regarding whether or not you can ship unembalmed human remains. So you’ll need to check with all parties involved before moving forward. 

Repatriation of cremated remains 

Returning remains to the United States is much easier when the body has already been cremated. Much less paperwork is involved in shipping or carrying cremains with an airline, and you can even ship cremated remains with the US Postal Service. 

If you’re planning to have your loved one cremated, and you’re comfortable with the process taking place in the country where they passed away, this option can save a great deal of time and stress. 

Burial in the country of death 

Your final option is to forgo repatriation altogether and bury your loved one in the country where they passed away. This is usually a less desirable option since it means limited access to your loved one’s gravesite. 

If you are able to travel out of the country to lay your loved one to rest, the US embassy located there will help you accomplish your goal. 

Remember that the US embassy or consulate in the country where your loved one died should contact you and provide you with information regarding your options. 

If you have questions regarding your options, contact the American Citizens Services Section of the country’s US embassy or consulate. 

ยป MORE: Don't skip these commonly forgotten post loss tasks. Download our post loss checklist.

 

How Much Does Body Repatriation Typically Cost?

There are no funds set aside by the US government for repatriating remains. So the cost of body repatriation is left to the family or the estate of the deceased person. 

And although there are systems in place to make the process safer and easier for everyone involved, shipping something as large and potentially hazardous as a human body is complicated—and, therefore, costly. 

The average cost of repatriation to the United States is between $6,000 and $12,000. 

Distance equals cost 

The cost of body repatriation to the United States depends a great deal on distance. Shipping a body from South America, for example, will cost less than repatriating remains from Australia. 

Likewise, the fees for services like medical care (and autopsy if needed), paperwork filing, cremation, or embalming in the country of origin vary widely. 

Travel insurance may help cover the cost 

If the traveler had travel insurance, their policy might cover part of the cost of body repatriation. This may depend in part on the cause of death. 

Steps for Repatriating a Body

Now let’s look at the specific steps you should take if you ever need to repatriate a body. 

Tip: You can list these steps in your end-of-life plan. That way, you’ll help your family deal with body repatriation if you pass away while traveling. 

Step 1: Contact the embassy. 

If your loved one died while traveling abroad, you might have been contacted by the US embassy in that country (or the nearest embassy) already. But if not, you’ll need to reach them to begin the process of repatriation. 

The US embassy or consulate will know the protocols and procedures necessary, and it will help overcome language barriers with other parties, if necessary. The embassy will also let you know what you need to do next. 

To find the appropriate consulate or embassy, visit www.embassy.org or travel.state.gov

Step 2: Call your funeral director. 

Next, choose the funeral home you want to work with (locally) and let them know your situation. They’ll let you know whether they work with body repatriation or direct you to the nearest facility that does. 

Step 3. Arrange the formal identification. 

Before the body can be repatriated, it must be formally identified. Rules vary with regard to who can perform the formal identification depending on the country and circumstance. 

In some instances, a travel partner or business partner may be able to identify the body. In others, though, a family member may need to travel to the country of death to make the identification. 

Step 4. Choose a method of repatriation or disposition. 

Next, the family must choose whether to cremate or bury the body in the country of death or repatriate the body. (Review these options above.) 

Step 5. Contact a funeral director in the country of death. 

In addition to a local funeral director, you’ll need to appoint a director in the country of death. This funeral director will prepare the body for transportation or arrange for cremation or burial. 

The embassy and your local funeral home can help you find and communicate with a funeral home in the country of death. 

Step 5. Gather the proper paperwork. 

There are a number of documents required before a body or remains can be sent from one country to another. These documents must be presented to a coroner in the United States before final disposition, and they include the following: 

  • Death certificate
  • Post-mortem report (if applicable) 
  • Authorization to remove remains from the country where death has occurred 
  • Embalming or cremation certificate
  • Infectious certificate (stating whether the person died as a result of infectious disease or in a country affected by infectious disease) 

Other documents may also be required depending on the foreign country, your funeral director, and the shipping service or airline. The consulate and your funeral director will help you gather these documents. 

Step 6. Make travel arrangements. 

The role of the funeral director in the country of death might include making travel arrangements. To do so, they must be a “known shipper” with an airline. They may also help prepare the appropriate paperwork and documentation for travel, or this may be up to the embassy.

Part of these shipping arrangements is the selection of a special coffin that’s air-tight and metal-lined. Body shipping containers for air or sea are often lined with lead or zinc to protect other passengers and personnel.

Keep in mind that this coffin doesn’t have to be your loved one’s final burial container. 

Step 7. Retrieve the body and prepare for final disposition. 

Finally, your funeral director will pick up your loved one’s body from the shipping service or airline and return it to your local funeral home. There, the funeral director may perform additional embalming or preparations. They’ll also help you start preparing for the funeral and final disposition. 

Should You Be Prepared for Body Repatriation?  

When you travel, or when a loved one travels abroad, it’s a good idea to consider the possibility of death in a foreign country. We can’t predict when or how we’ll die, but we can prepare for potential situations like body repatriation. If you consider the idea and create a plan before traveling, the process of body repatriation (if it’s ever necessary) will go a lot more smoothly. 

If you do create a plan for body repatriation, you may also want to set aside some funds to cover the costs. Your family can put those funds toward a funeral if repatriation never becomes necessary, or they can choose not to hold a funeral (or hold a memorial later on) if the funds need to go toward repatriating your body. 


Sources:

  1. Ruairi Connolly, MB, Richard Prendiville, Denis Cusack, FRCPI, Gerard Flaherty, MD. “Repatriation of human remains following death in international travellers.” Journal of Travel Medicine, Volume 24, Issue 2. 02 February 2017. https://doi.org/10.1093/jtm/taw082
  2. “Return of Remains of Deceased US Citizens.” US Department of State -- Bureau of Consular Affairs. https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/while-abroad/death-abroad1/return-of-remains-of-deceased-us-citizen.html
  3. “Shipping Remains.” National Funeral Directors Association. https://nfda.org/resources/operations-management/shipping-remains
  4. “Importation of Human Remains into the United States for Burial, Entombment, or Cremation.” CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/importation/human-remains.html

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