Cruises are meant to be fun-filled, sun-filled voyages of relaxation, entertainment, and good eating, with a dash of actual travel thrown in.
Due to recent events and the headlines around passenger ships, it got me thinking: what happens if someone dies while on a cruise?
Turns out, modern cruise ships are well prepared, but it can be an arduous process to get that body back home.
Cruise Ship Demographics
How likely would a death on a cruise ship be?
First, it’s important to mention cruise ship demographics. Cruise vacations are popular among older generations, as it offers a relaxing way to see the world at a slow pace and while taking in some gorgeous weather.
In a 2016 report by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the average age of passengers was 55. While that might seem young, this just means, in a way, that for every 22-year-old on board, there’s an 88-year-old to balance them out.
When you pair the generally older age of cruise ship passengers to the fact that the average cruise ship holds around 3,000 sun-seekers (the largest hold well over 5,000!), you can almost count on a death at sea, unfortunately, especially on longer voyages.
Operation Rising Star
If you’ve traveled on cruises before, you may have heard an announcement for “Operation Bright Star” over the ship’s intercom. This alerts the crew that there’s a passenger with a serious medical emergency and spurs them into action.
If the medical emergency can’t be resolved and results in a passenger death, then you may hear “Operation Rising Star” over the intercom. This is the signal to relevant crew members that a passenger has died onboard the cruise.
Because of the nature of a cruise being meant to be fun, relaxing, and full of happiness, regular passengers won’t be informed of the death on the ship, unless traveling with the deceased. “Operation Rising Star” will be the only hint you’ll get as a passenger.
The Cruise Ship Morgue
Because deaths aboard cruise voyages happen more often than you may think—about 3 per week, by some estimates—most cruise ships are required to have an on-ship morgue, while almost all of them have body bags in case of emergency.
The ship’s morgue may have its own refrigerators, but it could also be adjacent to one of the galleys to make use of the walk-in freezer (if the ship may be a long way from the next port). Smaller cruise lines will often have space for 2-3 bodies, while larger ships can hold up to 10, at times.
While the body is being tended to, a crewmember will notify the company headquarters, and they’ll send the ship’s chaplain to see to any onboard family members, partners, or friends.
Weird Fact: There’s actually a website called Cruise Ship Deaths dedicated to, well, you get it.
How Does the Body Get Home, and Who Pays?
In most cases, a body will be removed from the ship at the next port of call, if the country is willing to receive it. The port’s country also needs to be able to issue a death certificate recognized in the deceased’s home country, otherwise the ship will need to carry the body on.
If the body is able to be offloaded at a foreign port of call, it can then be expatriated back to the person’s home country via flight. It can be a long process for any friends or relatives, unfortunately, full of paperwork, language translations, diplomatic calls, and more.
However, in some cases, the ship may allow or even suggest that the body stay aboard the ship until it returns to its home port. Though this happens infrequently, it could take place when the next port or ports the ship will stop at don’t offer morgue facilities or the country doesn’t have expatriation agreements with the deceased’s home country.
As far as who pays to get the body back home? It’s almost always up to the family. There are some types of travel insurance which may cover a death and the costs involved, but these are rare. Insurers will also deny requests if they find a pre-existing condition was a factor in the death.
Well, that’s our story on what happens when a passenger dies on a cruise vacation. Got any questions, feedback, or other points to add about Operation Rising Star or cruise ship morgues? Let us know below in the comments, and thanks for reading!