Cruise ships are a popular vacation destination for people all over the world.
With millions of passengers sailing each year, it begs the question, what happens when someone dies on a cruise ship?
When someone dies on a cruise ship, there are specific procedures that cruise ships follow to ensure the safety and security of all passengers and respect for the deceased and their family. Cruise lines have specially trained crew members that deal with the logistics of disembarking a body and provide support to fellow passengers and family members.
The vast majority of cruise ship deaths result from natural causes, primarily heart attacks. But, there are occasional murders, suicides, and man overboard situations.
How Many People Die on Cruise Ships?
There are no accurate statistics about how many people die on cruise ships. Estimates range from 150 to 200 people per year. However, the sad truth is that the actual number is much higher.
There are almost no accurate statistics on cruise ship deaths. While accidents, murders, and suicides are widely reported, deaths by natural causes are rarely published.
Cruise lines don’t exactly promote the number of cruise ship deaths. However, the CDC does require that ships divulge “any deaths or certain illnesses” to the ship’s port state.
From 2014 to 2017, 91 people died on cruise ships that arrived in Fort Lauderdale. And from 2008 to 2018, 129 naturally occurring deaths were reported on vessels arriving in Port Canaveral.
While most passenger deaths are not the cruise line’s fault, it is a reality for hundreds of passengers every year.
However, the number of cruise ship deaths is relatively low when considering the millions of people who sail on cruises. Each year more than 30 million people sail on cruises around the world.
How Do People Die on Cruise Ships?
From toddlers to seniors, people of all demographics sail on cruises. But, it’s no secret that cruising primarily appeals to an older population.
Given that many elderly passengers sail every year, it’s no surprise that age-related deaths are the most common cause of death.
A person may pass away at sea for various reasons, but the most common cause is heart attacks.
According to Cruise Critic, “The vast majority of deaths on cruise ships are natural, with most the result of heart attacks.”
Note: For those wondering, passenger death by falling off a cruise ship is an extraordinarily rare occurrence.
What Happens When Someone Dies on a Cruise Ship?
When a cruise passenger dies on a cruise ship, crew members are specially trained to deal with the logistics of disembarking a body and supporting fellow passengers and family members.
It’s impossible to prepare for the death of a loved one. Fortunately, cruise lines are prepared with staff specifically trained to provide support to grieving loved ones.
Contacting The Family
The first priority for crew members is to inform the family.
Firstly, the cruise ship will notify any passengers who traveled with the passenger. It’s easy for cruise lines to determine which guests the passenger was sailing with as they are typically on the same booking.
After notifying the guest’s travel companions, the cruise ship notifies family members back home. Finding the guest’s family back home is a bit more complicated. Many cruise lines require passengers to fill out an emergency contact when they book. If that’s the case, the cruise ship will promptly notify the passengers emergency contact.
In some cases, the travel companions will inform the deceased person’s family.
Cruise ships act as giant floating cities. And they need to be prepared for every possible situation.
For the reason above, cruise lines have a guest care team trained to provide support for grieving families and friends.
These crew members aren’t grief counselors.
Instead, they assist families in working with local authorities, dealing with insurance, and making travel arrangements.
Body Storage (Do Cruise Ships Have Morgues?)
All cruise ships are required to have a morgue and facilities on the cruise to hold the bodies of deceased passengers for up to a week. The morgues are small, with room for three to six, though large ships may have room for up to ten bodies.
According to regulations, the morgue must be separate from food storage areas.
Morgues are located on the lower decks near the medical facilities and are inaccessible to cruise ship passengers.
The cruise ship morgue can store bodies for up to a week. However, in most cases, the body will be disembarked when the cruise ship arrives at the next port – if the country is willing and able to accept it.
In addition to having the proper facilities to store the body, the port country needs to be able to issue a death certificate that is recognized by the passengers’ home country. If the port country cannot perform these functions, the ship will continue to carry the body until reaching a suitable port.
Cruise lines are prepared to deal with situations where they may need to hold the body for extended periods of time. But only when necessary.
Generally, cruise ships will only hold a body as long as needed. Some cruises have several consecutive sea days, such as repositioning or transatlantic sailings. During these extended ocean voyages, the cruise line is prepared to store the passenger until they reach the next port.
On sailings to the Bahamas or Caribbean, the passengers’ bodies will often remain in the cruise ship morgue until the ship returns to the United States. Once the vessel returns from sailing, the body is investigated by the local medical examiner’s office investigates the body.
However, local authorities in every port have the right to require an examination of deceased passengers.
Are the Ice Cream Rumors True?
There’s a particular rumor about ice cream that’s been circulating for years.
The rumor says that if the cruise ship runs out of room in the morgue, they’ll use the freezer. Guests and crew receive 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 it an urban legend.
I can’t be sure if there is any truth to the rumor. But I guess it could happen in rare circumstances.
Operation Rising Stars
If you have sailed on a cruise, you’ve probably heard secret codes broadcast over the ship’s intercom. The secret codes allow the captain to communicate essential information to crew members without worrying other guests.
The code “operation bright star” alerts the crew to a severe medical injury or illness that requires immediate attention.
In the case of death, the code “operation rising star” is issued. This code alerts the crew about a death on the ship.
As a passenger, these two codes are the only information you will receive.
Repatriation (Bringing the Body Home)
Once the ship arrives at a suitable port, the body is disembarked early in the morning to avoid creating a scene for other passengers.
It is typically required to have a passenger accompany the body off the ship. Any passengers that leave the ship must present a passport to leave the cruise ship.
It shouldn’t be a problem considering most cruises require passengers to bring a passport. However, some US-based cruise itineraries don’t require passports.
If the passenger doesn’t have their passport, it adds an additional layer of complication to an already complicated process.
The biggest concern for loved ones is getting the body back home.
The process of repatriation is a long, complicated, and expensive process for the loved ones involved. The repatriation process is full of paperwork, diplomatic calls, language translations, dealing with insurance, contacting a funeral home, making travel arrangements, and more.
Most cruise lines have guest care team members who can assist loved ones with repatriation.
Consulate offices will also help make arrangements with local authorities. They can even serve as provisional conservators of the person’s estate if there’s no one else to fulfill the role.
Whether or not a body can be immediately repatriated from a foreign port depends on several factors. Generally, when the ship reaches a suitable port city, the body will be offloaded, taken to a medical examiner, and repatriated.
Neither the consulate nor the cruise line pays any related costs to bring a loved one back home. While they are ready and able to offer guidance and support, it is up to the family to cover the expenses.
The process is quite expensive, with all the necessary paperwork, travel arrangements, and funeral costs.
Covering the costs is where travel insurance plays an important role.
We can’t understate how important it is to have travel insurance when you vacation abroad.
Travel insurance coverages generally include costs for medical care, theft, and expenses for returning a passenger home.
If the passenger has travel insurance, the cruise line and travel companions will coordinate with the insurance company to create a plan. Sometimes, the family must pay the expenses and then claim back with the travel insurance.
VisitorsCoverage is my preferred choice for cruise travel insurance. They offer cruise-specific plans to protect you and your loved ones while you sail.
Reporting The Death to Local Authorities
Cruise lines are required by law to report passenger deaths to local authorities.
When the ship arrives at the disembarkation port, they need to provide information on the cause of death and passenger information.
If foul play is suspected, local authorities will conduct an investigation. If the cruise is from the US, the FBI will be called to conduct the investigation.
The investigation team will conduct interviews, watch CCTV footage, and analyze the crime scene.
If the cause of death is suspected murder, the suspect will be held in the cruise ship jail.
Issuing a Death Certificate
When the ship disembarks the body, the port city country assigns the death certificate.
The death certificate is required for the body to fly back home. Not all ports have the necessary infrastructure to keep a body or issue the death certificate.
If the ship stop’s in a port that doesn’t meet these needs, the body will remain in the ship’s morgue until the cruise docks at a suitable port.