Death & Travel: Preparing for the ultimate journey … just in case

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ September 12th, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » How to guides ... » How to live overseas.
Monks skull from the chapel of bones in Portugal

Monks skull from the Capela de Ossos (Chapel of Bones) in Portugal - All the monks remains were used to decorate this infamous chapel ...

What happens if you die when traveling overseas?

Death. A rather morbid subject, but one that’s been following us everywhere since the day we were born. In the “West” people prepare for it, fret about, think about it, and try to avoid it as best they can. In the “East” people accept it but don’t like to talk about it. In parts of Africa,at the moment, it’s simply happening on a mass scale.

One thing for sure: death is pretty unavoidable for all of us, including when we travel.

Subscribe to the longest way home newsletter**I’ve recently had to deal with this potential inevitability, it’s been enlightening. You can read the details exclusively on my subscriber only newsletterCurrent subscribers: Next edition will be sent out on Sept 21st.


So, if we do indeed kick the proverbial bucket outside the borders of our own countries, what happens next?

Do we get shipped home by the hospital, or embassy? What if we are traveling alone, how will people know?

What about my email or blog, what happens to that when I die? Continue reading to find out …

What happens if you die of natural causes overseas?

You’re on holiday with the family when all of a sudden “Gramps” flops over on the sun deck of your package hotel on the second last day. He was 96, not a bad run.

Aside from a few young hotel receptionists hired for low salaries, you might be surprised to find a hotel manager who knows exactly what to do.

You might also be surprised to know how many well established hotels have to go through this quite regularly!

A local medical representative will be called, along with the local authorities and Gramps will quickly be shuffled off to the local mortuary for safe keeping. At the mortuary you’ll be graced, hopefully, with a knowledgable person who will ask you some questions. Some of which will reverberate through this article.

Gravestone from Kanchanaburi Thailand

Unless your details are found quickly, you could end up being buried in another country

An abbreviated list of primary questions:

  • Do you have travel insurance?
  • Where is the deceased’s home country?
  • When are you due to be going home?
  • What airline?

If you (and you should) have travel insurance, you’ll be advised to call them. If you’ve been fortunate enough to take out a proper insurance policy, then things should run smoothly from there.

They’ll want things like a coroners report from the local police, and mortuary certificate. At this time, it would be a good idea to also call your local embassy, while they are not going to be of much help, it’s important to keep a record.

Hopefully, things will run smoothly. Gramp’s might even be on the same flight back with you (in the cargo hold), but in most cases the deceased will be sent back on a separate flight. After that, your home.

What do you do if your travel partner dies when you are on holiday?

You went out for a night of beer, clubbing, and a few bad kebabs at 3am. By 11am you wake up, but your best mate is stone cold on the floor beside his bed. What do you do?

Firstly, don’t panic. You’ll have a hangover. Try to remember last night a little more clearly, just to be sure you guy’s weren’t up to something incriminating.

All clear? Good, now do what the family did above. Call the hotel manager. Then confirm that your buddy really has passed away and is not simply still comatosed on some great chemical mix from the night before.

Staying in a dodgy hotel in downtown Bangkok?

Avoid any memories of the “Hangover 2” and call your embassy. Then call the hotel manager as they should/will also advise. The police will more than likely be called by the hotel manager. Remember your story, including your whereabouts last night, clearly.

You will also need to have the following information about the deceased:

  • Full name
  • Date of birth
  • Passport number
  • Where and when the passport was issued
  • If you are not the closest relative yourself, next of kin of the deceased person

If your friend had any health issues, asthma, heart complaints, diabetes etc, now would be a very good time to mention them. Likewise if they had any infectious diseases eg HIV, hepatitis.

Even if it was not the cause of death, it’s important to report these things.

Remember you’re in a foreign country and language barriers can be problematic at this level. Keep it simple, and basic.

If you run into any issues, call your embassy again and request assistance. If you are in any kind of serious trouble, they might send a representative around (you’ll be waiting a while), or more likely, they’ll tell you where to find someone to assist. If you know anyone in the country/area, call them now as well. Lastly, call your family back home and let them know what’s happening.

Let them know the city you are in and the name of the hotel you are staying.

Take care about calling the deceased’s family at this stage. If you are in good condition, and your mind is clear then make that call too. Again, have all the facts for them before calling. Including the hospital / morgue name they’ve been taken to, and any police officer/station name.

Dealing with the police and death in a foreign country

Not every country runs things like they do in your home country. In some places the first person to report a dead person is often the prime suspect until cleared. In other countries corruption is high on the list of troubles to also consider.

But, in all likelihood, you’ll actually be treated respectfully, and with concern.

The main objective of the police at this point is to ascertain if there was any foul play.

As such, having a clear recollection of the night before will help you greatly. As will remaining calm.

After this, things should run much like they did for the first family above.

What happens if you die abroad while traveling alone?

Here, things get interesting.

There you are on your round the world year off when smack a local bus clears the road and planet earth of your body. Or, you fall prey to a pesky mosquito and surcum to cerebral malaria or … well you get the point. Alone, traveling, foreign country, you kick the bucket and no one knows about it.

Out in the open public the chances are someone will call the police about the event. Hopefully, you will also have a copy of your passport on your body somewhere.

If your demise occurs in a hotel room without room service, you might have to wait a day or two before the housekeeper finds your remains.  Again, a copy of your passport really comes in handy here too.

What happens to your dead body with a found passport

Easy, the local police call your embassy noted on your passport and inform them. Next, local procedures takes place such as an investigation, post mortem etc. Meanwhile your embassy, armed with your passport will endeavor to contact your local government authority who will endeavor to contact your relatives.

Tip: “Having a next of kin’s details written into your passport is really helpful in such cases!”

Should contact be made with your family, your embassy will pass on relative details so that they can get your remains home. Yes, you read that correctly, it’s up to your family to get your remains home, not your embassy (this might not be the case for every foreign office policy, but for the majority, it is).

What your family has to do, to get your body home

Your family will get a message that you have passed away overseas. They will need to call the foreign office, or the overseas embassy involved in the case.

They will give them the details of the police, morgue, hotel, and some other country contacts, and that’s about it. Your family now needs to make contact with the police station that logged the death or are investigating it, the morgue and any other relevant parties involved. eg the hotel (remember your possessions are still there, as is the bill, which still needs to be paid).

This can all get complicated or easy in a hic-up.

The easiest, most convenient way to assist your family in getting you body home is to have had a good travel insurance policy!

You did give your travel insurance details to your family before setting off right? It’s not a crumpled piece of paper stuffed into your backpack is it? Or worse still locked away in your email account that no one can get into?

Tip: Do leave a copy or three of your travel insurance policy with your family and friends before heading off!

Your travel insurance company can really come into play here. They should have in-country contacts and agents that can handle an overwhelming amount of these arduous tasks. And, save everyone a lot of money/time.

What if I died without a passport copy on me?

It can happen, though you really should carry one with you at all times. However, let’s say some undesirable person relieves your lifeless body of your wallet/purse including all your ID!

The police will take note of this, and having found nothing to identify you, may/should conduct a local investigation. Local embassies will be informed of an “unclaimed body”.

Meanwhile, after a coroners examination, you go on ice.

Your hotel is a key aspect in all this as if you die outside of it, they will eventually go into your room looking for you to pay the bill. Hopefully it’s a reputably hotel and they

National Mosque Abuja, Nigeria

Remember there will be different religions, customs and procedures that the country you die in will carry out before your remains are sent home

call the police to inform them you have not returned.

At this stage, and everything works as it should, someone will put 2 + 2 together and link your body up with some photo ID found in your luggage at the hotel.

What if they can’t find any ID, am I lost forever?!

No, your family will hopefully notice you’ve not been in contact with them recently. Maybe they are the type that fret every day if you have not been in contact. Or maybe it’s only every week. Or maybe you only shoot them a mail once a month?

In the latter case, it might take a good few months before they start to panic.

Hopefully they’ll know what country you were last staying. And, perhaps more importantly they might know some friends who you stayed in contact with more frequently than them.

So don’t be shocked to find out it was your ex on Facebook who first raises the alarm!

Once this happens your family should call their local police, followed by the embassy in the country you were last located reporting your disappearance. Again, with any luck, the embassy will have a list of bodies that might match your description. Remember, in this scenario you’ve been found without any ID!

Keep in mind, the above will take a lot longer to sort out than if you had ID. And, a lot of the above will depend on local authorities. For example, some countries might only keep bodies in a morgue for a maximum of 4 weeks before disposing of the remains. Usually a temporary burial plot, before a state burial plot. Or, as is frequently the case due to cost, cremation.

What happens if you die when traveling: a list of important highlights concerning a death overseas

Keep in mind that every country will obey their local laws and customs should a death occur on their territory, irrespective of the deceased’s nationality. Likewise, many countries will have different procedures for consular responsibilities in dealing with the death of a citizen overseas.

Important considerations that link all the scenarios of death overseas together:

  • Your embassy will not shoulder the cost of shipping your remains home
  • Having clear ID on you when traveling in these circumstance is actually a very good idea
  • Having the correct travel insurance really pays off in such cases
  • Giving your travel insurance details to relatives and friends is really important before you travel. Even if you don’t die, but are incapacitated, and you are the only one that has those details, they won’t be of much good to you now!
  • Make sure you have a legal Will written before you travel. It will help your family and friends out after your death

Moderate considerations that link all the scenarios of death overseas together:

  • Carry phone numbers, addresses and e-mail addresses not only of your next of kin but also for your doctor and dentist. Medical records may be the only way to identify your remains
  • In some countries your internal organs will be removed as part of the countries legal requirement for a post-mortem, these are most often not returned
It’s best to remember that your embassy cannot:
  • Investigate deaths themselves
  • Pay burial or cremation expenses
  • Pay for the return of bodies
  • Pay any debts that may be outstanding

Your embassy should be able to do the following:

  • Confirm the death, identity and citizenship of the deceased
  • Notify the local authorities in your home country to try and locate your relatives
  • Aid in a mortuary certificate for custom clearance of your remains
  • Provide information about the remains and the effects of the deceased

After death: What happens to all my online stuff?

Email accounts, social networks, websites, online accounts, the list goes on and is growing.

It will be a few decades yet before the “.com” generation will start dying off.

When this starts to happen, we’ll soon be bombarded with new start-ups offering services for the deceased online activities and digital assets.

As this is already quite a long article, I’ll be publishing a follow-up about what happens, and what to do about all your online accounts should you die, next.

Meanwhile … a personal note:

As many of you may know, I was recently hospitalized on my travels and faced with a lot of the above over a period of time (minus the grave). Hence the lack of updates recently, and the rather culminating previous post.

While not out of the water yet, I will be continuing my journals here. I can’t promise regularity, and it will take some time to catch up.

Private journals about what happened –  for email subscribers only

I am not publishing the details of what happened live on this blog/journal at this time. I am in the process of  writing the events on my newsletter that goes out to all email subscribers.

If you get this blog / journal by email already, then you also automatically get the newsletter too. It comes out every season.

I chose not to publicly publish the details of what happened here for many reasons.

Primarily it was due to the unexpected and rapid nature of the events at the time of my hospitalization.

I simply … ran out of time, literally. As is what happens when these things occur, there’s little choice in the matter.

Secondly, while there are many great readers, and subscribers to my journal here, there are ten’s of thousands more that simply browse by. While it might make a great casual read to them, I simply don’t want to be answering a mass of questions from strangers under what is an already taxing situation.

I do, however, understand, know, and respect the several thousand people who do follow my journey already and that have had concerns.

More over those that have taken the time to invest in subscribing to my journeys weekly updates. As such, I have every intention in keeping subscribers up-to-date on what’s been happening.

Let’s just call it, an exclusive membership to my very personal journals.

So, if you are interested in a more in-depth look at this journey that will contain all the events that lead up to me being admitted and current treatment in hospital in Asia, then do by all means sign up to my updates here.

Subscribe to the longest way home newsletter**To read my personal journal you’ll need to  subscribe to my travel journals. It’s spam free, I don’t try to sell you anything, and there’s a free e-book included. Current subscribers: Next edition is due out on Sept 21st . (if you are currently getting my updates, like this article, then you’ll automatically receive a copy of the newsletter when it’s published)

If you don’t want to subscribe, and you are happy to continue reading my public travel journals published here, no problem. My unique journey and travel journals will be continuing on right here either way, enjoy!

Coming soon:

Death Part two: Death and your online digital assets!

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27 Great responses to Death & Travel: Preparing for the ultimate journey … just in case

  1. this is really important. i was living in japan when a fellow gaijin died. it was amazing to see the whole process in action. there’s nothing worse for the family than to hear that their loved one has died, so far from home. great tips – thank you!

  2. Ivy says:

    héhé … a bit morbid but now we all know exactly what will happen if we kick the bucket abroad. the interesting part was how to behave when you find the dead body of someone you know … keep calm, don’t panic ;) well, i’ll try, thanks!

  3. Very interesting and valuable piece of information here, Dave. Thank you for sharing to fellow travelers. I also hope you are doing better now on your personal journey and struggle with your health. Wish you have time to visit Davao again just for relaxation.

  4. Michael says:

    Sorry to hear you’ve fallen ill. Get well soon.

  5. jim says:

    Hi Dave: Lots of food for thought here very well composed.
    Hope your are keeping better.

  6. hayadith says:

    get well soon dave..
    take care..

  7. Interesting post… :)
    Get well soon Sir…

  8. Anna's World says:

    Nice to see you back :)

    Great post, simply everything anyone needs to know. Not many people like you wrote, not many people in the west like to think about this. But, it’s better now than when it’s too late!

  9. Henry says:

    Talk about in depth writing. I guess when you come close to this sort of thing you have to think about it more.

    Some intelligent thoughts, I’ve learned a lot.

  10. Malcom says:

    Nice writing. Good to see a drop of humor in there too. Bookmarked, I might need this!

    Stay well.

  11. Good write up Dave,
    Understand about your not wanting to share your personal situation, though glancing views can bring in subscribers for a more serious look.
    Keep positive, be happy – we get one chance at this, so you might as well enjoy the rough patches along with the good ones.
    We live and learn from all things that occur in our lives.
    May the “force” be with you.
    John D. Wilson

    • Thanks John. I’m simply not in a position to answer 1001 questions from causal readers, bots, spam, trolls, copycats, and ill doers in regards to this. If people want to know more about my personal journey, no problems, become a member and sign up. If they don’t, no problem read what’s publicly published :) Their choice in what they like, if you know what I mean.

      Just seen you linked to your own website, my first time seeing it. Well done!

  12. Marc John T. Godinez says:

    lol! it looks like you’re preparing for your sooner death hahaha! :D But a very helpful piece of information for travelers ;) nice one

  13. Jason says:

    Gday Dave, Great to see you back on the air and posting again. Although I’ve never had to go through this situation myself, I have a great friend who runs an eco lodge in Malawi. He once told me of the time when one of his long term guests dropped dead at his property from cerebral malaria.

    The stories of trying to contact his next of kin, and driving around with the body in the back of a truck before going to a morgue. Then having to pay for the embalming.

    Still with no luck from the embassy on who this guy was, or where he was from, they then had to have a wooden box built for his body. I can’t recall much more, but it was a real drama for him to sort out.

    I’m interested on your thoughts of a person digital assets. As you point out, I think this is going to be a major business going forward, with people wanting to keep accounts alive as memorial to a person. I’ll save any discussion for this on after you post next, but it’s an interesting subject to me.

    Hope your on the mend soon


    • Hey Jason, thanks. Still trying to catch up on a lot of things, without over doing it, or getting caught up on a lot of online stuff. Off the meds for a trial now. So the next week will be a big test as to how far I can go.

      Makes a good story to hear about that guy in Malawi. Not nice at the time for him, unless he had a good sense of humor. This stuff happens all the time. Last year I came across one hotel with 2 deaths in 2 months. Heart attack, and suicide.

      Yep, next week digital assets. A lot of research went into it, it’s a mine field. But, there’s a few ways developing that can help. Hopefully it will be of use to people on way or another!

  14. Glad to see that Playboy Mansion stint worked well for you Dave. But seriously, hope you’re picking up. Me: just got back from that mountain horse-trek in Kyrgyzstan, stunning, tough; need more beer … maybe a coffin, soon.

    Regards – MRP