The Price and Process of Dying Abroad

More than 6,000 Americans living abroad or on vacation overseas die each year, according to the United States Embassy in Cambodia. The daunting and heartbreaking experience is difficult to comprehend, but the reality is that it happens.

Although the loss of a friend or loved one miles away may be costly, the United States government provides a clear-cut process on how to recover a loved one. The U.S. State Department advises those who are next-of-kin or a personal representative of someone who lost their life abroad to connect with the U.S. embassy.

For those who are aware of the loss of a loved one abroad, U.S. embassies and consulates can assist in contacting local authorities, explain how to send funds for the retrieval of the body or remains, and assist with the return of remains. Additionally, U.S. embassies will help complete documents required by U.S. law, including the Consular Report of Death of a U.S. Citizen Abroad.

This report is issued by the U.S. embassy or consulate and is based on the foreign death certificate or the notification of death by “local competent authority.” The Consular Report of Death of a U.S. Citizen Abroad is generally completed when the foreign finding of death is issued, which can take four to six months. The document is often used as proof of death in the U.S.

Next-of-kin individuals unaware of a lost loved one will be notified by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. The federal agency will coordinate with legal representation on the deceased individual’s remains, prepare documents, and assist with matters relating to the disposition of remains. While the agency may assist in guiding how to transfer funds to cover the costs, it will not assist in funds for the remains or ashes of Americans who die abroad.

The Department of State has no funds to assist in the return of remains or ashes of U.S. citizens who die abroad. The Bureau of Consular Affairs assists the next-of-kin to convey instructions to the appropriate offices within the foreign country and provides information to the family on how to transmit the necessary private funds to cover the costs overseas.

- The Bureau of Counsar Affairs

Retrieving remains from abroad

U.S. Consular officers will work with legal teams of the deceased to prepare remains to return home. The Bureau of Consular Affairs notes U.S. and foreign laws require four documents for remains to be returned home.

These include:

  • Consular mortuary certificate
  • Local death certificate
  • Affidavit from local (foreign) funeral director
  • Transit Permit

The U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Italy reveals it generally takes four to seven days to arrange the shipment of remains outside of Italy. However, the length of the process may vary depending on the location of the deceased individual. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says some countries may perform an autopsy before exportation.

Current CDC requirements vary if remains are preserved (embalmed), cremated, or if the person dies from a quarantinable communicable disease. These diseases include cholera, diphtheria, infectious tuberculosis, measles, plague, smallpox, yellow fever, viral hemorrhagic fevers, severe acute respiratory syndromes, and flu viruses capable of causing pandemics. Those not embalmed before importation with one of these diseases may require a CDC import permit.

For next-of-kin seeking cremation of their loved one, the CDC says residual matter from human remains is reduced to ash from the crematory process. Since cremated remains are considered non-infections, the CDC says they may enter with no death certificate or other documentation, regardless of the cause of death.

Authorization from the deceased, or if no document is present, the next-of-kin, is required for cremation by U.S. consulates. It may take several weeks for the funeral agency to obtain ashes from the crematorium.

Cost of retrieving remains from abroad

International Citizens Insurance is a resource that helps travelers locate international health, life, and travel insurance plans. The process of importing deceased bodies varies from country to country. For example, some countries might not offer embalming or cremation of the remains.

Individuals planning to bring back the remains should anticipate costs between $10,000 and $20,00. Depending on the situation, International Citizens Insurance says the cost could be higher, however, most insurance plans would cover the costs.

The cost of cremation is usually cheaper in most cases but varies per country. The U.S. Embassy in Japan says that the cost to prepare, cremate, and transport ashes to the U.S. nears $6,200. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica says the price could range between $1,300 and $1,900.

Those seeking help with the loss of a loved one abroad should contact the U.S. Oversees Citizen Service at any time of the day at 202-647-5225.

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