What Happens When a Cruise Ship Passenger Dies At Sea?

Every year it is estimated that about 25 million people go aboard a cruise. These cruise ships are like floating cities and can be on the water for weeks at a time. Deaths do happen of course while on board. What happens when a cruise ship passenger dies at sea?

When a cruise ship passenger dies at sea, the “Operation Rising Star” signal is given off by the cruise. The death is handled discreetly by the cruise ship to keep the passengers at peace. The onboard medical doctor confirms the death. The body is then put in a body bag and placed in the cruise ship’s morgue.

Yes, there are morgues in the ship because it is not uncommon to have deaths. This is especially true as the majority of the passengers are the elderly. Cruises are required to have body bags and a morgue where the body of a dead person can be placed.

Read on to learn more about what happens when a cruise passenger dies at sea, and what the cruise ship doesn’t want you to know.

What Happens When a Cruise Ship Passenger Dies At Sea?

There is only a set limit of time that the dead body in the morgue can stay. If the cruise ship happens to be far off the home port then the body is offloaded early in the morning in the next major port city where it will dock. The offloading happens early in the morning so that the passengers do not see it. Then the arrangements for repatriation of the body are coordinated with that country. If the cruise ship is already near its home port then the body is offloaded there.

Most deaths at sea are caused by natural causes with heart attack found to be among the leading cause of natural deaths. However, if there was suspicion of crime involved in the death of a passenger, the place where they died is cordoned off so that evidence can be kept intact. If the cruise ship is an American company, the FBI is alerted of the crime and they get on board at the next port that the cruise ship docks in to be able to conduct their investigation. 

Many cruise ships do not openly discuss deaths onboard. After all, the image that people associate with going on a cruise is one of eating, drinking, merriment, and travel. And this is indeed what happens most of the time.

Causes of Deaths at Sea

The main cause of death at sea is a natural one that is brought about by a health condition. It has even been found out that a majority of those who died from natural causes died from having a heart attack. 

It is not uncommon to find out about people dying on a cruise ship even if this is not openly discussed by cruise ships. After all, a big percentage of the people who go aboard on some luxury cruises are those that are in their 50s and above. This is because these are the people who have the time and the money to be able to afford to go on one.

There are some cruises that run for a few months at a time and there are many elderly people who go on these longer cruises because they find that to be cheaper compared to the living expenses that they have to shoulder when they are in their home country. So the death of an elderly person is a regular occurrence on such type of cruises ships. 

There are a few who die on a cruise ship by falling off one of the rails. Those who do so are often tipsy from all the heavy drinking that they did on the cruise. After all, you are encouraged to have fun while you are on one and drinking alcohol is one of the ways that you can do so.

However, there is a small percentage of accidental deaths from falling that involve young children and it is always heartbreaking to learn news about this. Another cause of accidental death among the young includes drowning in the ship’s pool. That is why it really is a must for parents to always have their eyes on their young kids to prevent this from happening. 

While there are few cases of it reported, murder is one of the causes of death of a passenger on board a cruise ship. When a crime happens at sea solving it is actually trickier because there are many factors involved such as the nationality of the dead person and the part of the world where it happened. 

Other causes of death appear bizarre. Examples of them include a gospel singer dropping dead while performing on stage and a person who accidentally died after trying to climb the ship’s mast. [1]

What Happens to the Body of the Passenger Upon Death 

cruise ship passenger dies

There is a funny rumor that goes around that says that when you are on a cruise and the crew there suddenly serves ice cream to the passengers that can only mean that they needed to empty the freezer to be able to use it for a dead passenger. But of course, such rumor is unfounded as cruise liners are required by law to have preparations in place in case of the death of a passenger. That is why if you ask a crew member they will tell you, likey in a quiet voice, that they have a morgue and body bags ready in case that happens. 

When a cruise ship passenger dies, the medical doctor of the cruise ship examines the body immediately to confirm the death. After that, the body is immediately placed inside a body bag and carried to the ship’s morgue. A cruise ship’s morgue can typically hold about three to five dead people at a time. The body can only stay there for a few days due to health and safety reasons. And every port city requires that dead passengers onboard be declared. 

When the cruise ship docks in the next port, the body is offloaded there and it stays in a morgue in that town. This is what cruise liners do especially for those that go on for months. They cannot keep the body for long under the ship as passengers will get uneasy if they find out that they are traveling with a dead person there. 

However, if the cruise ship is already a few days from the port home then the dead person is offloaded there and whisked away to a morgue that can hold it until it is brought home by the deceased’s family. If the deceased does not have any family then the authorities in that town will be the ones to make a decision on what to do with the dead person’s body.  

How the Cruise Ship Helps the Bereaved Family

Part of the preparations that cruise ships have for such an event is having a guest care team member that is assigned to help the bereaved family of a person who dies onboard. This member received training in giving logistical and emotional support to the family that is left behind by the dead person. 

However, their training does not include grief counseling. They are there mainly to provide support to the family. Some of the tasks involved would be contacting a funeral home in the port city where the cruise ship will dock next and preparing things that are needed for the repatriation of the body. For such arrangements to be made while onboard, they need to use communication tools. They also allow the bereaved family to use their phone and internet without cost. 

If the bereaved family chooses to not continue anymore with their cruise and get off in the next port, then the care team member will even drive them to the hotel where they will be staying at and continue to help them in making arrangements there for their deceased loved one. There is even some who even stay with the family until they can get back home already. Not only that but this member also does a post-cruise follow-up with the family to make sure that they are alright. 

Aside from the member of the guest care team, there are some cruises that have Catholic ministers on board that can give emotional support to the grieving family there. Such ministry is spearheaded by the Catholic group named Apostleship of the Sea. For some Catholics, it can be a consoling thing to get to talk to a priest after the loss of a loved one on board. 

Bringing the Body Back Home 

The biggest challenge that faces the family left behind is bringing the dead body back home. This is not such a big problem if the dead happens to be a citizen of the home port of the cruise ship and the cruise ship offloads the body there. The family or the insurance company will just have to pay for the domestic travel of the dead body so that it can be brought back to their home.

The bigger problem lies when the dead body is offloaded in a different country. The expenses involved in having a body repatriated from another country are huge. And the cruise ship is not liable in covering such expenses. If the person has travel insurance that covers repatriation, then the insurance company will be covering these expenses. If not, then the family of the deceased will carry the burden of coming up with funds involved in this process. 

There is an alternative if the family of the dead person does not have the funds to make the repatriation happen and that is to have their dead buried in the port city where they docked. This will be much cheaper compared to bringing their dead loved one back home. They just need to make arrangements with the local authorities in that town to make this happen. The only disadvantage of this is that they won’t be able to visit the grave of their dead as often as they would like. 

If they really want to take their dead loved one home but they do not have the money, then what they can opt for instead is the cremation of the body in the port city. After that, the remains can be placed in an urn that they can bring back home. They can even choose to finish the cruise along with the urn that holds the ashes of their loved one. This is like a symbolic way of letting your deceased love one finish the cruise with you. 

The fee for boarding a dead person on a plane so that it can be brought home is astronomical. In order to prevent a family from suffering such a financial setback brought on by your untimely death, it is always a highly recommended thing that the passengers get a comprehensive travel insurance plan before getting on the cruise.

This insurance plan ensures that even if a cruise ship passengers die onboard you can still be laid to rest in your home country while not causing a financial setback to those that you leave behind.