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Death of United States - Citizens Abroad

When a United States citizen dies abroad, a consular officer from the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate has the responsibility to report the death to the Department of State and to inform the closest known relative or legal representative. This is normally done by a detailed cable sent directly from the overseas post to the next of kin in the United States. The cable is official notification of the death, and also outlines the options available and the costs involved in the disposition of the remains. Disposition of the remains must be accomplished in accordance with the laws and customs of the host country. The following options will normally be available in most countries.

Preparation and Return of the Embalmed Remains

Returning the embalmed remains is normally the option most acceptable to families faced with the death of a family member overseas. Funeral directors in the U.S. are understandably more involved with family members and with the Department of State in matters relating to the return of the remains than in the other options mentioned.

Preparation and shipment of the remains must be carried out in accordance with local laws, regulations, and customs. Embalming in most foreign countries is not widely practiced and cosmetic embalming that meets U.S. standards is rare. Although there are methods to prepare the body for shipment, it is important to remember that this preparation will normally not render the remains suitable for viewing. Funeral directors should be prepared to advise the family on the issue.

Costs for preparation and shipment of the remains are high because of the embalming fees and the air freight costs. Charges for these services vary widely depending on the geographic location and facilities available. After the receipt of the necessary funds, there will normally be a three to ten-day interval before the remains are actually shipped.

Cremation and Return of Cremated Remains to the U.S., or Disposition Locally

Although cremation is available in most countries, local regulations and religious customs may forbid the cremation of human remains in predominately Catholic and Moslem countries. In certain other countries, facilities for cremation may be quite limited, such as only one crematorium in the country. This would necessitate transporting the remains to the facility which could be several hundred miles from the place of death. Such additional arrangements would, of course, be time consuming and would result in delaying the return of the remains to the United States. In these instances, costs for cremation would be substantially greater. The family or the estate is, of course, also responsible for the cost of returning the cremated remains to the U.S., or other disposition.

Burial in Country Where Death Occurred

Local burial in the country where the death occurred is usually less costly to the family than the other options available. If desired by the family, a consular officer will take all possible care to follow the instructions of the family as to ceremony and burial site. In some countries local regulations will not permit the burial of foreign nationals. In this instance, the family will be so informed in the cable from the overseas post.

Regardless of the option chosen by the family, it is imperative that a decision be made immediately and that this information be relayed to the appropriate foreign service post. This can either be done directly by the family or through the Overseas Citizen Services in the Department of State. This is important because most foreign countries require that disposition of remains take place within a certain time lapse. This can range from 24 hours to five days depending on the geographic location and local custom. In some instances it will depend on the facilities available in the country to preserve the body. If death occurs in an isolated area where no facilities are available to maintain the body, disposition may be ordered immediately by local officials. In these cases, the family may request exhumation and shipment of the remains. This, however, can only be accomplished in accordance with the statutory requirements of the host country.

Finally, all associated costs relating to the disposition of the remains are the responsibility of the family. There are no U.S. Government funds appropriated for the repatriation of the remains of a deceased U.S. citizen.

The Department's Overseas Citizen Services does assist families here by expeditiously transmitting the funds deposited by the family to the concerned post overseas. The consular officer then disburses the funds necessary to accomplish the wishes of the family, provides an accounting, and refunds any surplus. If the family cannot assume financial responsibility and there are insufficient funds among the deceased's personal effects, the U.S. Consul must request that the local foreign authorities make appropriate disposition according to local law, such as burial in an unmarked "potters grave."

Funeral directors, family members, or their representatives should not hesitate to contact the Overseas Citizen Services, telephone 202-647-5225, for assistance in all matters relating to the death of U.S. citizens abroad. The Service provides emergency services on a 24-hour a day basis.