What happens if someone dies on a cruise?

There are an estimated 200 deaths of cruise ship passengers worldwide – this is what happens when the worst happens – Alamy

It won’t shock anyone to hear that cruise lines prefer not to talk about people dying on their ships, but there are an estimated 200 passenger deaths every year – not surprising considering that 31.5 million people vacation every year. go to sea, and their average age is approaching 50.

In the most recent incident, an elderly lady died on Royal Caribbean International’s “Ultimate World Cruise” earlier this month. The nine-month journey, which began in Miami in December, has gone somewhat “viral” in recent weeks, with passengers posting TikTok videos detailing the details of life on board.

Passengers do not share cruise lines’ reluctance to discuss the issue and, from my experience, seem to have a morbid fascination with what happens when someone dies at sea. The reality is rather subdued, the procedures are discreet and usually initiated by coded communications from the crew: ‘Operation Bright Star’, which indicates a medical emergency, and ‘Operation Rising Star’, which indicates that a passenger has died.

31.5 million people go on holiday at sea every year, and their average age is approaching fifty31.5 million people go on holiday at sea every year, and their average age is approaching fifty

31.5 million people take a seaside holiday every year, and their average age is approaching 50 – Getty

On one of my first cruises aboard P&O Canberra (now retired) in the early 1990s, the resident comedian nicknamed the main lounge the Chapel of Rest, in tribute to the significant number of elderly guests who routinely gathered there every morning for a post-work nap breakfast. , and only woke up when the announcement for lunch sounded.

The joke was dropped when, while traveling from Northern Norway, a passenger became seriously ill, forcing Canberra to change course and rush to the nearest port for medical attention. Unfortunately, the guest passed away while we were still underway, but when the captain solemnly delivered the news, the rumor mill on board was in full swing, and this became the main topic of conversation on the ship. Guests gossiped that there had been not one, but three fatalities, although this later turned out to be untrue.

It’s difficult to know exactly how many cruise passengers die each year, as almost every cruise line I’ve contacted flatly refuses to even engage in conversation about the issue, let alone release figures.

Some estimates put it at around 200 per year, which equates to about four per week, although according to a study by the International Journal of Travel Medicine and Global Health between 2000 and 2019, there were 623 deaths among cruise ship passengers and crew, based on data from 78 ocean and river cruise companies. The findings showed that the leading causes of death among passengers were falling overboard or onto a lower deck and cardiac incidents (in a high-profile case in 2013, 74-year-old journalist and broadcaster David Frost died of a heart attack on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth (He was on board to give a lecture about his career) and suicides.

A rescue helicopter prepares to land on a cruise shipA rescue helicopter prepares to land on a cruise ship

Barely a few weeks go by without a report of someone falling from a cruise ship into the sea – Getty/iStock

Barely a few weeks go by without a report of someone falling from a cruise ship into the sea. The website Cruise Junkie records a running total of such incidents involving cruise ships and ferries, showing that 2019 has achieved the highest number with 29 overboard, and there have already been three cases this year. A cruise line source admitted there was a surprisingly high suicide rate, and suggested some would book a cruise as a “last hurray”. Although death from foul play is fortunately very rare, such incidents often make headlines.

Due to the inherent nature of cruising – with sailings that can last months and a relatively high average age of passengers – crews need to be prepared for the worst, and generally are.

All cruise ships have morgues which are generally refrigerated stainless steel rooms, the largest of which can house up to ten bodies in cool conditions until the ship reaches the next port – although they can sometimes remain on board for up to a week.

When the bodies are unloaded, it is done discreetly through a small exit not used by passengers and, without ceremony, they are transferred to the care of a local funeral home. A death certificate is issued and arrangements are made to fly the deceased home, which can be bureaucratic and expensive.

If the deceased had adequate travel insurance, it will cover these costs, but if there are issues or exclusions, possibly related to an undeclared medical condition, bills can run into thousands of pounds and the surviving relatives will usually have to pay.

On world cruises and longer voyages, when ships are at sea for long periods of time and away from ports, too many dead bodies can cause headaches. There are stories of overcrowded morgues and of bodies having to be housed in wine cellars.

In one incident in 2009, an 87-year-old woman – Marion Schaefer – died 36 days into a 114-night Holland America world cruise. Marion’s son, who was also on board, wanted her to complete her final journey and found a solution. Her remains were cremated at the next port of call – Semarang, Indonesia – allowing him, and an urn containing his mother’s ashes, to complete the journey.

Paramedics rest near an ambulance parked in a harbor near a large shipParamedics rest near an ambulance parked in a harbor near a large ship

When deaths occur on board cruise ships, bodies are discreetly offloaded through exits not used by guests – Alamy

Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, which caters to a more mature clientele, said it is relatively rare for passengers to die on its ships.

“If this does happen, modern cruise ships are well equipped to handle it with the utmost respect, care and well-equipped medical facilities,” said the company’s director of health services, Dr. Kate Bunyan.

“Onboard procedures would be followed in the same way as in a land-based hospital, and bereavement services would be available for loved ones, both for the remainder of the cruise and once it has ended.”

In recent years it was possible for passengers who had died during a voyage to be buried at sea – saving cost and effort – but this was rare and could only take place if the ship’s doctor had no doubts about the cause of death.

In such cases, ceremonies would be held early in the morning before other passengers were up and the ship would be slowed to the slowest speed while the captain read the service.

Senior officers would form a guard of honor around the body which, packed in a biodegradable body bag and covered with a flag, would be placed on a hydraulic platform and dumped into the sea at the appropriate time.

However, one cruise expert recalled how on such a solemn occasion an officer cadet accidentally pulled the wrong lever, causing the body to plunge off the side of the ship into the waves before the widow had arrived on deck for the service.

In the ensuing panic, bags of potatoes were hastily replaced and covered so that the service could continue as planned, while the relatives were none the wiser.

Today, relatives can take the ashes of their loved ones in a biodegradable urn, accompanied by death and cremation certificates, for a seagoing send-off. Not only is this considered easier and more environmentally friendly, there is also much less chance of something going wrong.

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