Cruise lines aren’t exactly jazzed to talk about how many people die while at sea, but it’s enough that they’ve got to have some protocols in place for the inevitable. Thrillist takes time to see through the eyes of the cruise ship.
Ice cream on cruises
A persistent urban legend among people who work on cruise ships holds that ice cream is a secret word for a dead passenger. The idea being that if extra and generous servings of the always-a-good-idea dessert were being doled out, it was because the chefs needed to clear out a freezer chest to store a body.
Keeping corpses in the cooler isn’t, as you would expect, the official protocol. Contemporary cruises, the largest of which is Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, can carry nearly 5,500 passengers and are required to maintain a morgue (quite separate from the kitchen’s freezer area) that typically has enough room for six to 10 bodies, along with a stock of body bags.
Older folks on cruise
The average age of a cruiser on a five-to-seven-day voyage is 50 — a robust age. On multi-month cruises, though, the average age shoots up to 75 — that’s the average, mind you. It follows then that not everyone is going to survive a longer trip at sea. Which, when you think about it, is actually a great way to go out.
Cruises are subject to strict regulations, which most passengers experience as a bombardment of intercom announcements. Two such announcements — which the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) would not specifically acknowledge happen — are more ominous than your run-of-the-mill heads-up on disembarkation times.
A call for Operation Bright Star is said to note a severe medical emergency that requires immediate attention. Should the emergency be fatal, the cruise may broadcast a second announcement: Operation Rising Star. They’re subtle, obviously, to keep the others guests’ mood afloat. Any loved ones onboard will soon get to learn a less auspicious new term: repatriation. (More on that in a bit.)
Secrets on cruise death
Cruise lines don’t exactly trumpet the exact number of deaths per year, but as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the good ol’ CDC), a ship must divulge “any deaths or certain illnesses” to its port state. A look at such records from 2008 to 2018 from the Brevard (Florida) County Medical Examiner’s Office, home to Port Canaveral, the country’s second-busiest, counted 129 naturally occurring deaths on cruises, including seven so far in 2018. Similar data from Miami-Dade County authorities reported 206 natural and 29 accidental deaths aboard cruise ships that call at America’s busiest port in the same period.
Relative death tolls
So for the nearly 10 million annual passengers who sail out of Florida, America’s flagship state for multi-day cruise embarkations, the incidence of death aboard any given voyage is low. Overall, the number that keeps popping up is in the neighborhood of 200 dead cruisers a year, which, you know, for an industry that puts more than 20 million mostly greying individuals on the open ocean every year ain’t bad. The odds are overwhelmingly in your favor of returning home alive.
Disposal of corpses
The bodies of deceased passengers are unloaded, only if the port country is able (has a morgue) to and willing (friendly) to accept the body. Whichever port country accepts the deceased can then issue a death certificate, the next step toward repatriation.
For those passengers whose death did not occur abroad, a death certificate is still required for a legal ruling on the cause of death. Without that, the next of kin may encounter complications with the deceased’s will.
The CDC will hand the cruise to do a pile of paperwork after these deaths, and the headaches may not stop there for cruises. Dead people’s families may sue. What I found talking to maritime lawyers and others around the industry is that it’s simply not as regulated as air travel. There is no FAA equivalent for boats.
Carrying corpses in the sea
Then there’s the matter of getting the body home, if that’s even what the family elects to do. Neither the consulate nor the cruise line will cover the costs of transporting the person’s remains; travelers insurance will usually cover much of the expense, which can be considerable. The dead, notoriously bad at bargaining, travel at higher prices than the living.
A body can also rest in the on-ship morgues for around three days, allowing the ship to stay on course until an accommodating port is reached. Family or friends of the deceased are welcome to leave at an earlier harbor. Or, as was the case of Bob Schaefer, whose mother, Marion, passed early on into a 114-day cruise in 2009, they can stay and finish the voyage solo. “I know she would want me to go on,” Schaefer said at the time. After dealing with the necessary paperwork, he arranged for his mother’s cremation at the next port and journeyed with her cremated remains for the duration of a world-spanning trip. No reason you should let the end of one life well-lived curtail the trip of someone else’s lifetime.
Disclaimer: This video is intended for informational purpose only. This may not be construed as a news item or advice of any sort. Please consult the experts in that field for the authenticity of the presentations.
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