David Patterson HeadshotBy David R. Patterson

The words to a country song by Willie Nelson come to mind when we speak of international shipping, the phrase is “The world’s getting smaller and everyone in it belongs” this is never a more true statement. According to the Association of Americans Resident Overseas 6.32 million Americans excluding military live in 160 plus countries. With that many Americans living abroad, we as funeral professionals will at some point be asked to repatriate an American back home, or repatriate someone back to their own country of origin. How long will this take? What paperwork do we need? How much does it cost? Who do we call? All of these questions flood into our minds before we even find out where the individual may have died. So here are some possible answers to those questions.

How long will this take? The question is very dependent upon the location of death if abroad, it is also dependent upon the consulate or embassy of the country if they died in the U.S. Normally, a funeral will last from the time of death to burial, about 4 days, death certificates in most states follow about 10 days later. With international shipping you can pretty well throw out the fast track. That is not to say that it will not progress at a fast pace, just that you are now at the mercy of the consulate or embassies. It has been my experience that MOST consulates will complete the proper documentation and paperwork within 48 hours from the time they receive them. But this is not always the case. Estimates that are typically given for a working time frame can be as little as 7 days or as much as 14 days after the standard paperwork is processed. Normal time frame is approximately 5 business days. Delays may also be encountered when working with airlines, such as we are seeing now with Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, where all American Flagged carriers are suspending jet service until it is safe for their equipment to fly into the area. The flights in this case can be re-routed on many other carriers that are not flagged as an American aircraft, but you still have to be a Known Shipper on the alternative airline as well. The best advice to this question is to overestimate the time and let the family you are serving know up front that it could take 2 weeks to get the remains shipped to the destination. This includes Americans Abroad coming back to the states.

What paperwork do we need? The question has as many answers as there are countries. However, several documents are needed no matter where the death occurs and should be notarized. First and foremost is a certified copy of the death certificate in most cases it is advisable to have two copies, complete with cause of death. Second most important document is the passport of the deceased, without this most countries will require a certified birth certificate. Third document is an original burial transit permit, followed by an embalmers affidavit which is sometimes referred to as an embalmers certificate. Some countries require the aforementioned documents to be apostilled by the state in which the death occurred, or if in a foreign country by the United States Embassy. Apostille is a document that provides an additional authentication required for international acceptance of notarized documents. The apostille was created by the Hague Convention in 1961 and is recognized by all countries signing the Hague Convention Agreement.

Additional documents may include Letter of Non-Communicable Disease which is issued by the Department of Public Health or medical examiners offices if a public health office is unavailable. I know in Dallas County, Texas the public health department will not sign the affidavit and the task falls to the medical examiner. Another document that is required occasionally is a No Contraband Letter, which simply states that the remains and only the remains are in the container. If you ship personal effects with the remains this letter would be the place to attach a Personal Effects Checklist to indicate what is in the casket. If you use a third party provider, like many do, ask if they are TSA Certified Cargo Screeners which will insure no problems at the customs area. Some consulates offices require that you arrange a flight prior to sending them the paperwork and to include this information on a Flight Itinerary, which will indicate the date and time of the arrival.

If you are in need of a quick answer to what paperwork is required, I suggest you begin at www.embassy.org which will answer most of your questions. Groups like NFDA, ICCFA and many publications such as The Funeral Home & Cemetery Directory which provide additional information on their website as well.

How much does it Cost? Well, let’s see, a lot! On a more real note I answer this question very differently than most would. The cost is driven by the country as well as the quality of work from the provider. If you are the provider then your cost will be a bit different. Worldwide funeral operatives exist and are very helpful and friendly. Before money, the end result must be thought of, in other words just because its inexpensive does not mean the remains will be in good shape upon arrival. That is why we recommend only FIAT-IFTA (World Organization of Funeral Operatives) members. You can find a complete list of member firms at www.thanos.org.

The actual monetary cost should include the local service (preparation of the deceased), possibly a short visitation, documentation, consulate fees, transportation fees, customs fees, and finally airline charges which will be the largest part of most international shipping invoices. In the U.S. firms routinely charge families five thousand dollars and up for their services and I believe it to be fair with the amount of additional time and expenses that are involved. International firms quote based on their country and may include additional fees. I have had quotes from seven thousand dollars and up for shipping back into the U.S. The airline fees are the shocking part of the quotation. Airlines fees either use a zone chart or need to interline with another airline to get you there. Interline fees are the part that cost so much and the U.S. flagged carriers have no way of controlling the price. Flights from the U.S. can range from eight hundred fifty dollars up to eight thousand dollars depending on the location. Best practice for cost is to get an itemized estimate to begin with, which should include all cost associated with the case and a separate line item for the airline fees. Most third party providers will automatically send an estimate to you as a normal course of business.

Who do I call? This question is a good question. If the remains are in the United States, most large third party shipping firms have an international desk and can take care of your needs in one call. Third party providers of international shipping can provide consular services, translation services, arrange for funeral services in the foreign country, deal with the airlines and provide all IATA (International Air Transport Association) approved shipping containers. If the remains are in a foreign county then I would suggest you call your U.S. third party provider to handle the overseas details on your behalf. If you would prefer to do it yourself, then I strongly recommend FIAT-IFTA providers from the website listed previously. Remember, cost is secondary to the quality and professionalism that is provided.

International shipping is becoming a larger segment of our profession. With millions of Americans away from home, and millions of people coming to the U.S. every year, we will sooner or later have to provide shipping services to an international location. The questions are many, the answers sometimes seem overwhelming but with a good partner that understands the international laws, rules and shipping regulation it becomes a much more manageable task.

How long does it take to do an international shipping will depend on the country and the consulate but a good estimate is approximately five to ten days. The top documents that must be part of any case are death certificates, burial transit, Embalmers Affidavit and the Passport. You may need other forms but this list is a must. Cost of the service overseas may seem unreasonable at times but remember it will include the airline fees which are the largest portion of the price, followed only by shipping units. Cost should not be the driving factor. The driving factor is quality and professionalism.

Lastly, who to call is up to you. If you wish to do it yourself then the World Organization of Funeral Operatives (FIAT-IFTA) has members that are quality firms and conform to a set of rules that NFDA helped to create. If you prefer assistance then rely on a third party shipping firm that specializes in international shipping. FBA

David Patterson is the owner and operator of the largest Texas based third party shipping company, Global Mortuary Affairs, LLC. David has been involved with repatriation since 1989 and has helped to develop relationships with funeral directors in Mexico, Philippines, Singapore, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador and many other countries. David has worked with consulates and airlines to accept an alternative to zinc lined containers as well as being recommended by many consular services. David can be reached at 877.216.2708, or [email protected], or www.trustgma.com.