The Associated Press
---- — 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.
Ludwig decided to cremate her father, Rob Wiscombe, a 43-year-old businessman and chef from Pocatello, Idaho, since there are fewer issues involved in transporting ashes than transporting a body. “If we waited to get my dad’s body home I would have had to be there for several weeks and the body would be shipped back like luggage,” said Ludwig. She was warned, however, that sometimes the urn is opened and contents inspected at the airport.
Ludwig believes it was the hotel manager in at the resort in Playa del Carmen who contacted a funeral home on her behalf. Ludwig said they were first told that cremation would cost $2,000, then after the manager left, the price was raised to $4,000 with $500 cash up front.
“We kept asking why and there was a language barrier. For some reason they couldn’t explain it to us,” she said.