Death by Cruise Ship

What happens when someone dies at sea during a cruise? In recent news, and aboard the Norwegian Dawn, there were two deaths during a cruise to Bermuda. Being on a luxury cruise is no exemption from the occasional death either by natural causes, accident, suicide, or even murder. Novels and mysteries have been written about murder on a cruise ship because of the fascination and romance of being at sea, so anytime there’s a death on a cruise ship the news and media reporters scramble to get the story. Truth is, like any community, city or town, it happens, people die.

USCaskets2Back in 1979, I had the opportunity to visit a mothballed ocean liner, the famous SS United States. It was a very hot and humid August day when my family was escorted on a very extensive tour throughout the aging liner which had been sealed-up and preserved at a lonely pier in Norfolk, Virginia for at least ten years. The ship was like a time capsule from the 1950’s as if the ship had been abandoned. Ocean liners, like the SS United States, were small cities that made the five-day voyage back and forth across the Atlantic, and like any city the ships were prepared for the occasional death at sea. As we wandered around the SS United States in 1979, I specifically recall seeing a collection of wooden caskets deep in one of the storage holds. These caskets were used of course in the event that someone died during a crossing.

In 1992, I signed-on to work aboard the Zenith, a brand new ship with Celebrity Cruises. I met up with the Zenith in Papenburg, Germany, just after the ship came out of the shipyard. Before the ship ever carried any cruise passengers, I was part of the preparations to get the ship ready for it’s usual eastern and western Caribbean itinerary. As a member of the staff onboard we toured nearly every area of the ship including the ship’s hospital. Again, like any land-bound city, the ship had a small hospital facility, and I was particularly fascinated to see several refrigerated holds designed to act as a morgue in case there was a death at sea.

DoctorBOSThe cruise industry has grown dramatically over the past fifteen years, and the typical cruise ship carries up to 3,000 passengers. With hundreds of ships out there each week, collectively carrying tens of thousands of passengers, there’s bound to be an occasional death. We have seen reports of passengers and crew members falling overboard, which in most cases involves people drinking too much alcohol and doing something stupid. Unfortunately many deaths at sea on cruises revolves around drinking too much alcohol, where passengers or crew members fight, or have accidents. When I worked on the ships, I saw how alcohol affected some of our passengers each week, and it was often not a pleasant sight. Because many cruise passengers are in their “golden years” death by natural causes or heart attack are common on cruise ships, so cruise lines are prepared to respond when this happens. In addition to morgue facilities, many cruise ships also have a brig to lock up anyone the Captain believes to be a threat to other passengers or crew.

If a death occurs onboard during a cruise, one of the first actions taken by the ship’s officers is to contact the Coast Guard or land-based law enforcement. The ship is usually instructed to return to the nearest port where proper investigations can be implemented. Each cruise line has a system in-place and specific guidelines about what to do when a death occurs during a voyage. These guidelines usually comply with Coast Guard requirements and the law according to the country the ship is registered. Typically, the cruise line will ask the surviving family member what their preference is when it comes to choosing where to disembark. It’s usually best to disembark in a major port or home port, rather than a small port during a typical itinerary. Many of these smaller ports don’t have the best morgue facilities, and transportation of the body could be more time consuming and complicated. A very important thing to consider before cruising is to purchase travel insurance to avoid any unexpected and costly expenses if a death occurs.  When planning a cruise, be sure to visit this website here at Travel Safe Insurance to inquire about the very specific cruise-related policies.

morgue1A few years ago I cruised aboard the Brilliance of the Seas out of Dubai, and I interviewed the resident doctor.  The Doctor was very open about what happens when someone onboard dies.  First the there is a discussion with the surviving family member, then the body is prepared by placing in a large zip-lock bag and then put inside specially designed coolers to keep the body from decomposing while in transit to the nearest port capable of returning the body to the originating country of the deceased.  On the Brilliance of the Seas there are only three available storage units for the deceased, so the hope is that there are no more than three deaths during one voyage.  These special compartments are not turned-on, unless needed.  If there was a death and a body must be placed in one of these compartments, the doctor will contact the engine control room and the engineer will activate the power needed to refrigerate the compartments.

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