What happens when a cruise ship passenger dies on a cruise?

We often get asked the question, “What happens when someone dies on a cruise?”. The answer is as varied as the type of deaths which occur during a cruise. Cruise ship passenger deaths range from deaths during cruise ship excursions or while in a cruise ship port to accidental deaths, deaths by natural causes, deaths during ship-wide incidents such as fire, grounding and sinking, murder, overboard deaths, overdose deaths, suicides and suicidal behavior resulting in death .

One element of the answer applies to all passenger deaths for cruise ships which embark from a U.S. port, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) must be notified. Every passenger who embarks from a U.S. port must return to the U.S. port or the USCG must be notified why the passenger didn’t return at all or return alive. All incidents which take place on a cruise ship, be it a collision, weather related damage at sea, fire, pollution, serious injury or death are classified as a “casualty” and all casualties must be reported to the USCG.

While cruise lines are all about passengers enjoying their cruise, people do die every week on a cruise and discussing it while people are enjoying their cruise is not something cruise lines typically do. There are more subtle indications of a death aboard a cruise ship. “Operation Bright Star” announces medical emergency, which may result in a death . “Operation Rising Star” means a passenger has passed away. Immediately someone from the company’s Guest Care Team will be in contact with the family of the passenger including those on the cruise and those at home.

Cruise ships are required to have a stock of body bags and a refrigerated space that can be used as a morgue. The body is stored in a cruise ship body bag and placed in the cruise ship morgue. Most cruise ship morgues can store three to six bodies for a period of three days. Since the morgue is refrigerator, not a freezer, three days is the outside limit before a body which has not been embalmed begins to decay and embalming is not possible. Usually, if the cruise is longer than three days to the next major port or return to the U.S. the body will be removed at the next major port and repatriated from there.

This is where travel insurance becomes important. If the body is removed at a port along the way, typically at least one family member will leave the ship with the body, although this is not always the case. Sometimes the spouse, parents, or children of the deceased will choose to stay aboard the cruise, to reduce the financial cost of the death, by sailing back to the port which they embarked at and continue with their pre-arranged travel package. In addition, the cruise line will not reimburse passengers for any portion of the cruise, including the estate of the deceased who may have died immediately after embarking on the cruise. These are costs which may be covered by travel insurance.

If Travel Insurance has been purchased, a representative from the company will assist with all arrangements, hotels, meals and other expenses when the expenses are covered by the travel insurance. They are the liaison between the cruise line, the port and your home town.

There are other cases where the body stayed on the cruise ship back to the original port, but family aboard couldn’t bear being on the ship with the body and they left the ship at the next port. Typically, the Cruise Line Guest Care Team will assist in outlining the options available to each member of the travel party and assist with arrangements at the port such as calling for transportation and issuing a death certificate. All costs related to the death are the responsibility of the deceased person’s family.

It’s important to note, that while passports may not be required for some cruises, if the body or their family members leave during the cruise, a passport will be required for all who leave the cruise ship. If there are no passports, emergency passports will be required and additional passport fees are required. This can be a time consuming process and fluent English may not be spoken by those in the foreign port.

If the body leaves the cruise ship, a mortuary in the town will have to be contacted and hired to process the body for transportation and repatriation. Those costs are not negotiable and must be paid up front. In addition, the mortuary may require a local hospital to provide an official death certificate for the deceased in order for the body to be flown back to the U.S. The costs for the hospital and the doctor/coroner there must also be paid, up front. This is also the case when an ill passenger is medically disembarked from a cruise ship at a foreign port and later dies in the hospital there.

If the death takes place on the weekend, it will likely be Monday or the next business day before any processing will begin. Expect a week of lodging for those who stay in port before everything is completed.

If the person is elderly and died from obvious pre-existing conditions, the body may be taken back to the original port, labeled and processed as cargo for customs inspectors. Usually, the body is removed from the cruise ship before passengers are allowed to disembark.

If the cause of death is not readily known, illegal drugs, excessive alcohol, violence to the body was found, other foul play is possible or the person went overboard, the FBI will be notified and an investigation will begin. The FBI will board the cruise ship, view the location of death, the body, interview family and friends both on the ship and at home, and interview the crew. If foul play is immediately suspected, the FBI may fly a team out to the cruise ship at the next port, board the cruise ship and return to the U.S. with the body, investigating during the rest of the cruise.

While there are ways to get assistance with an unexpected death during a cruise such as settling up a GoFundMe account, Cruise Ship Deaths strongly advises travel insurance, always cruising with your passport and making sure all passports are carried into each and every port.