What Happens When Someone Dies on a Cruise Ship?

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Two empty deck chairs on the top deck of a cruise ship in the middle of the day facing out over the ocean

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With millions of passengers sailing each year, it begs the question, what happens when someone dies on a cruise ship?

When vacationing on a cruise ship, the last thing on most people’s minds is the possibility of death. Yet, with cruises often being the holiday choice for the older demographic, it’s estimated that around 200 people pass away annually on cruise vacations.

Cruise ships have facilities and protocols for dealing with deaths on board. Most deaths result from natural causes, though accidents, suicides, and murder can occur.

What Happens When Someone Dies on a Cruise Ship?

The cruise ship MSC Magnifica moored at the Ocean Quay Cruise Terminal in the port of CopenhagenPin

When someone dies on a cruise ship, crew members follow meticulous procedures to handle the process respectfully and carefully. The ship’s medical team confirms the death and immediately informs the captain and necessary port authorities.

The ship’s staff immediately notifies all passengers traveling with the same reservation as the deceased guest and alerts their emergency contact.

Crew members provide emotional support and assistance to the grieving family. The ship’s staff is trained to handle the needs of grieving loved ones and deal with the complexities of disembarking and repatriating the body.

The body is kept in the cruise ship’s morgue until it can be disembarked, either at the origin port or the next major port of call with facilities to handle the legal and logistical requirements to repatriate the body.

The repatriation process varies significantly based on local laws and the ship’s itinerary‚Äč.

If the cruise ship’s next port doesn’t have the appropriate facilities, it will continue to carry the body until it reaches a suitable destination for unloading.

The body’s disembarkation is generally carried out early in the morning to maintain respect and minimize the impact on the cruise experience for other passengers.

For the family, the repatriation process involves significant coordination with local authorities to ensure that a death certificate is issued and recognized by the deceased’s home country. Repatriating a body is a complex and costly procedure, often necessitating assistance from embassies and requiring comprehensive travel insurance to manage potential expenses.

Despite the sad nature of such events, life on the ship continues for other passengers. Cruise ships often have counselors or chaplains available to provide support and help manage the emotional impact on passengers and crew.

Cruise Ship Morgues

All cruise ships are required to have morgues. Cruise ship morgues serve a crucial function, allowing for the respectful management of deceased passengers or crew until final arrangements can be made.

Cruise ship morgues are typically located on lower decks, near medical facilities, to ensure easy access by medical staff while remaining out of sight and inaccessible to passengers. The morgue is a steel refrigerated room where bodies are stored.

The size of a cruise ship morgue varies, but most can accommodate three to six bodies, though the largest cruise ships can hold up to ten bodies.

Cruise lines are prepared to hold bodies for extended periods, such as during repositioning cruises. However, the goal is for cruise ships to hold bodies only as long as absolutely necessary. Cruise lines store a body until it reaches a suitable port with the resources to repatriate it.

The design and operation of these morgues are strictly regulated to meet maritime and international health standards. For example, the morgue is separated from food storage areas, a mandatory health regulation to prevent cross-contamination.

Morgue facilities are vital during long voyages, such as transatlantic or repositioning cruises with several sea days in a row.

For cruises in regions like the Caribbean or the Bahamas, cruise lines typically hold the bodies until the ship returns to the U.S. Importantly, every port authority has the right to demand an examination of the deceased.

If foul play is suspected, the relevant authorities carry out an investigation.

Are the Ice Cream Rumors True?

A female passenger on a cruise ship holding a vanilla ice cream cone in a waffle cone with a pool in the background and passengers swimmingPin

A particular rumor about ice cream has been circulating for years.

Rumor has it that cruise ships store bodies in the freezer when they run out of room in the morgue. The cruise line provides guests and crew with generous portions of ice cream to make room for the bodies.

Former and current cruise ship employees tell conflicting stories. Some say the rumors are true, while others call them urban legends.

My take: I don’t believe the rumor to be true. Health and safety laws mandate strict separation of body storage and food. The cruise ship would violate health and safety laws if these rumors were true.

Operation Rising Star

Many cruise ships give a secret code to protocol for handling a passenger’s death, “Operation Rising Star.” This secret code word on cruise ships provides discretion and privacy to the individual. Crew members use the secret code to communicate without causing distress to other passengers and giving respect and privacy to the deceased.

Operation Rising Star is initiated immediately after medical staff confirm a death on board. Crew members ensure the deceased is handled with respect and care, involving the medical team and security personnel who work together to transfer the body to the ship’s morgue. The operation also includes notifying the captain and the ship’s officers to coordinate with the deceased’s family, providing support, and beginning the repatriation process according to maritime laws and the protocols of the ports they visit.

Similarly, the code word “Operation Bright Star” is a secret code that refers to serious medical emergencies requiring immediate medical attention.

Operation Bright Star mobilizes the ship’s medical response team to provide urgent care to stabilize patients until they can receive comprehensive medical treatment at a shore-based facility. It could involve a range of medical complications, including severe allergic reactions to a heart attack.

Importance of Travel Insurance

Passengers enjoying a day in the caribbean sun on the Royal Caribbean Independance of the Seas cruise ship pool deckPin

I can’t understate the importance of having cruise travel insurance.

Travel insurance provides comprehensive protection and a worry-free vacation.

Coverages vary between policies, but you’ll often receive coverage for:

  • Medical emergencies
  • Onboard medical services
  • Trip cancellations or interruptions
  • Lost, damaged, or stolen baggage and personal items
  • Repatriation

By covering these diverse and significant risks, travel insurance acts as a safety net, allowing passengers to enjoy their cruising experience with fewer concerns about potential financial losses or emergencies. Always review potential policies carefully to ensure they cover all aspects of your cruise itinerary and any personal health issues you may have.

Editor’s Tip

VisitorsCoverage is my preferred choice for cruise travel insurance. They offer cruise-specific plans to protect you and your loved ones while you sail.

How Many People Die on Cruise Ships?

Silk flowers on a gravestonePin

It’s estimated that around 200 people die every year on cruise ships. However, the actual number is likely much higher as not all cruise lines or countries share death statistics.

The total number of deaths is low, considering that more than 30 million people embark on cruises annually.

While most passenger deaths are not the cruise line’s fault, it is a reality for hundreds of passengers every year.

How Do People Die on Cruise Ships?

The most common cause of death on cruise ships is natural, primarily due to heart attacks (source). The prevalence of heart attacks as a leading cause of death isn’t surprising, given the higher average age of cruise passengers. The stress of travel, excitement, and perhaps the physical activity involved in participating in various ship activities can exacerbate these conditions.

In addition to natural causes, accidents such as falls or drownings contribute to these statistics. So, too, do suicides and murders.

It’s important to note, especially for those who may have concerns about the safety of cruising, that deaths from accidents, such as falling overboard, are exceedingly rare. The design of modern cruise ships and stringent safety protocols significantly minimize such incidents, ensuring the safety and security of passengers while aboard.

Article by

Marcello De Lio

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