What happens if you die overseas?

We all hope it never happens but the sad truth is that sometimes, a holiday ends in tragedy.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, approximately 1,300 Australians die overseas each year.

No one expects to pass away on holiday and it’s a hard topic to get your head around.  For most of us, it sends a shiver down the spine and doesn’t bear thinking about.  But, it can happen and having a bit of information about what’s involved might help should the worst come to pass.  We recommend you talk to your loved ones before heading off on holiday just so they understand what you would like to happen if you pass away overseas.

So what happens when you die overseas?

This largely depends on where you die, how you die, whether you want to be returned home and if so, how.  Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Your wishes

Some people aren’t bothered about their final resting place whereas others have a detailed and documented plan regarding their wishes.

Local burial or cremation (ie in the country where death occurs) can often be the simplest to execute.  It is when the mortal remains are to be repatriated to the deceased person’s home country that things can get a bit complicated.  Here are a few things which need to be considered:

  • Would you want your remains returned to your home country?
  • If so, would you want to be cremated before repatriation or returned for burial or cremation at home?
  • Do you have any religious beliefs which mean you must be buried in a set timeframe after death?
  • Some people never want to be subject of an autopsy. What are your thoughts on this?

Sometimes, it may not be possible for your wishes to be honoured and this largely depends on where you pass away and the circumstances of your death.

Where you die

Each country has its own regulations regarding the treatment of mortal remains and in some cases, this can involve a lot of red tape.  Then, there are cultural considerations to consider.  Some countries require that if a human body is to be transported internationally it must be embalmed within 24 hours of death and carry a police tag.  Others require that embalming must only be performed by a qualified doctor.  It is also common for burial of non-embalmed remains to occur within 24 hours of death in some Islamic countries.

Whilst your wishes and those of your loved ones are paramount, sometimes the location of death means legal and cultural considerations will interfere and/or take precedence.

How you die

If we must die, we all want it to be quick and result from natural causes, right?

Unfortunately, this is not always the case and if death results from an accident or foul play, the police will usually become involved.

Whilst the police do not ordinarily become involved with death by natural causes (eg cancer, heart attack etc), this is not the case if the death results from an accident, murder or suicide.  In these circumstances, there will be a formal investigation and an autopsy will most likely be performed.  In some countries, if your death is at the hands of another person, the authorities may confiscate your body until their investigations (and sometimes court proceedings) are complete.

Bear in mind too that in the case of an Australian dying overseas due to an accident or similar, this may also be subject to an Australian Coronial enquiry.  In such cases, it is not uncommon for the body to be subject to further medical assessment following repatriation.

Repatriation of remains following death by natural causes generally takes 7-10 days to organise.  However, death due to “unnatural” causes considerably lengthens this timeframe.  Sometimes, it is not possible for loved ones to be given a timeframe because it is a matter of waiting for the local authorities to sanction the release and transportation of the remains.  It could take weeks.  In extreme cases, it could take months.

What’s involved?

If you are being returned home, this largely depends on how your remains will be transported.  That is, will you be cremated overseas and returned in ash form or will your body be returned home?

Whilst the laws of the country where death occurs will be considered regarding exportation of human remains, the Australian Government also has regulations relating to the importation of human remains.

Importation of human ashes

There are no particular requirements for the importation of human ashes into Australia.  The only notable requirement is that the container used to hold the ashes must be sealed and free of contaminants (eg soil).  Whilst you do not need to declare the human ashes on arrival in Australia, if the container used to carry the ashes is made of wood, this must be declared to Customs upon arrival to Australia.

Each airline has their own rules regarding transit of human ashes and it is best to check with the chosen carrier.  Some airlines require that the ashes be transported as hold luggage whereas others will let a passenger carry the ashes in hand luggage.

Human ashes can also be transported via courier or postal services.

Importation of human remains

The requirements are more onerous if importing human remains.  This is because human remains pose a potential risk to human health.  This is not the case for ashes as the Australian government does not consider them to be a biosecurity risk.

If transporting human remains to Australia for burial or cremation, the body must be transported in a hermetically sealed container (ie it must be air-tight and not allow leakage of bodily fluids).

The corpse must also be accompanied by one of the following official documents:

  • An official copy of an official certificate which notes the cause of death;
  • An official extract from an entry in an official register in which the cause of death is noted;
  • A certificate from a medical practitioner which states whether the body has (or had) signs/symptoms of disease. If disease was present before / at death, the disease(s) must be stated on the certificate.

Whichever form of documentation is supplied, it must be in English.  If in a foreign language, the document must be accompanied by a certified translated copy.

Importation of human remains is subject to the Biosecurity Act 2015 and falls under the edict of the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.  This department should be notified 48 hours prior to the arrival of human remains.

Repatriation of remains must be handled by international funeral directors to ensure compliance with the laws of the country where death occurred and also the country to which the remains will be transported.

Can DFAT help?

There is no doubt that death overseas complicates an already difficult process.  In the event of death overseas, contact should be established with the local embassy, high commission or consulate.  In some cases, loved ones are advised of a traveller’s death overseas by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).  The local embassy, high commission or consulate (if there is one in the locality of death) and DFAT provide a wealth of assistance and support in the event of an Australian traveller’s death overseas.  They can assist the deceased’s family with administrative arrangements and formalities.

DFAT can help with the following:

  • Assisting family and friends to understand the legal requirements and processes in the country of death.
  • Providing a list of local funeral directors and lawyers.
  • Liaising with local funeral directors to ensure they understand Australian quarantine requirements.
  • Providing estimated costings for local burial/cremation and repatriation of the remains.
  • Providing advice on how to transfer funds from Australia.
  • Providing advice on how to arrange official translations of required documentation.

DFAT cannot help with the following:

  • Giving recommendations on suitable providers (eg funeral directors, lawyers etc).
  • Investigating the circumstances of death.
  • Providing translation or interpretation services.
  • Paying the cost of cremation, burial or repatriation.
  • Arranging freight of the deceased’s personal effects or settle their debts.
  • Becoming involved in legal issues – eg court proceedings relating to the death, discharge of the deceased’s estate etc.

What about travel insurance?

Death of a loved one is always distressing for family and friends.  When that death occurs overseas, it is even harder to make arrangements.

If the deceased person purchased travel insurance to cover the trip, making contact with the travel insurance company will be of enormous assistance.   Most if not all travel insurance policies provide cover to the traveller for overseas medical expenses.  This cover extends to the cost of burial or cremation in the country where death occurs or repatriation of the remains to the traveller’s home country.

Following notification of the death, the travel insurer will make enquiries into the circumstances of death to determine if the policy responds.  Once it is satisfied that the policy responds, the travel insurer will take care of most arrangements.  This usually involves liaison with the traveller’s family / next-of-kin to ascertain their wishes.  Once this is established, the insurer will take care of most arrangements to ensure these wishes are executed and pay the costs associated with the process (subject to the terms and conditions of the insurance policy).   Bear in mind though that if you elect for the remains to be returned to your home country, once that has been done, any further expenses incurred in Australia are to your own cost.  Your travel insurance policy will not cover any funeral, burial or cremation costs which are incurred after the body has been returned home.