Cruise ships are floating cities. They carry thousands of people from port to port, while life passes on the shore. And with that many people on board, it's inevitable that sometimes, someone dies.
But what happens to your body, if you die on board a cruise ship, days away from port? What kind of problems can this cause for your friends and family? And what exactly do the cruise ships tell the other passengers about a death on board?
An older demographic
Close to 200 passengers die aboard a cruise ship each year. The vast majority die quietly and from natural causes, at peace on a vacation they planned for months in advance.
Thousands of passengers are on board a cruise ship, and most of the people who can afford to take a multi-week cruise are retired, or near retirement age. Holland America offers 100-day-plus "Grand Voyage" cruises, taking the retired and those with a phenomenal amount of vacation time across the globe. Due to the length of these cruises, the average age floats around 75 for passengers on multi-month cruises. When a ship is dominated by septuagenarians prepared for a long journey, a certain number of deaths from natural causes is likely.
Operation Bright Star
If you spend time on a cruise ship, you will be bombarded by a litany of ship-wide intercom announcements during your travels. Two announcements, however, are a little less common and considerably more ominous. An announcement calling for Operation Bright Star denotes a severe medical emergency requiring immediate attention. These situations can often lead to death, with some cruise lines making a second announcement, Operation Rising Star, to note that a passenger has passed away. No formal statement is ever made to passengers announcing a death, since that would detract from the otherwise cheery mood of the cruise.
Storing the body
Cruise ships are required to carry body bags, and maintain a small morgue. This morgue is not merely additional space in a ship kitchen's freezer area, but a separate area for storing the bodies of deceased passengers. Most ships dedicate more space than needed, featuring individual refrigerated units for six to ten bodies.
The bodies of deceased passengers are unloaded when the cruise ship stops at its next port, but only if the port country is willing to accept the body and issue a death certificate. This can be a very complicated process filled with plenty of paperwork left for those alive, when a friend or loved one traveling with them dies abroad.
Only after the country of port issues a death certificate can the consul of the deceased's home country get involved, allowing for a legal ruling on the passenger's death and the disbursement of financial assets and other wishes existing in a will.
Who pays to transport the dead person's remains home? This burden falls on the family — the consulate won't cover the costs, and neither will the cruise line. Luckily, the price of flying a body home is often less than the price of a airplane ticket for a living passenger. Some forms of trip insurance will cover the costs of returning deceased passengers and their party home — a morbid end to a long-anticipated sea voyage.
Cruise ships rarely alter their course if a passenger dies — but if an immediate surgery is required, the ship can change direction, or a helicopter can come to meet the ship. If a passenger dies on a short cruise, say in the middle of a five- to six-night journey through the Caribbean, the body is often stored on board until it reaches the return port in order to decrease complications for the family.
In one bizarre case in 2009, an 87-year-old woman died thirty-six days into an 114-night Holland America trip around the world. (This extremely long cruise often sees multiple deaths: three passengers had died on the previous voyage.) The woman's son was accompanying her, and he dealt with the paperwork and arranged the cremation of her body at a nearby port. And then he stayed on board ship for the remainder of the journey, accompanied by the cremated remains of his mother.