Traverse City Record-Eagle

Body & Soul

June 29, 2013

Hassles add to grief when someone dies abroad

Actor James Gandolfini was just one of the thousands of Americans who die while traveling abroad each year. Their survivors need to not only cope with grief, but also the logistics of trying to repatriate the body.

For Azia Ludwig, 22, the tragedy of her father’s death from a fall hours after her wedding in Mexico was only the beginning. Her experience included a funeral home she felt was unscrupulous and a Spanish death certificate that wasn’t accepted by all the U.S. banks and insurance companies she’s had to deal with.

“It was a nightmare. I had the best day of my life and I woke up to the very worst day,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Midville, Utah. “You’re never really prepared, but here was a language barrier.”

It’s impossible to know how many Americans die outside of the country each year, but in 2012, the U.S. State Department assisted the survivors of nearly 11,000 U.S. citizens by notifying next of kin, helping with returning the body and keeping the family informed of any investigations, said Beth Finan, a spokeswoman for the agency’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Gandolfini’s body was flown back four days after his death, the process expedited by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But for average folks, the process can take much longer, and may include hassles ranging from bureaucratic hurdles to high (and sometimes questionable) fees. The State Department or a U.S. Consulate may be able to assist with advice and arrangements, as can many funeral homes. If the deceased had life insurance or travel insurance, those companies should be consulted as well to see what help might be available, and what type of documentation is required to claim benefits.

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