11:35 am — 6 Comments

Given the older age of many passengers on certain cruise lines, it’s not surprising to lose one or two along the way.

On a recent Caribbean cruise, I witnessed three people (in varying stages of life or death) get carried off the ship – one man by helicopter, after he had a heart attack on a private island; one woman by ambulance, which was waiting alongside the Panama Canal; and for the last person (probably still breathing), the ship made a detour to the nearest port with a hospital.

I’ve been onboard several other cruises when we have quietly made an unscheduled stop. There are never any announcements that the ship is rushing back to shore to save someone, and it’s certainly never announced that someone just died.

However, you might hear code words. On Carnival ships, “Operation Bright Star in stateroom 8027” means a medical emergency requires immediate attention in that passenger’s cabin. “Operation Rising Star” means they already carked it.

So, what happens if you die on a cruise? What do they do with corpse?

If a passenger dies on a short cruise, they are usually placed in a body bag and stored on board until the ship returns to the originating port. Cruise ships have small mortuaries – a chilled room that can hold a couple of bodies, as many as 10 on bigger ships.

If it’s a longer voyage, the body is usually taken off the ship at the next port with a nearby airport so they can be flown home to their family. The local authorities must agree to accept it and issue a death certificate. Then the consul of the deceased’s home country gets involved in the legal nitty gritty. It’s a complicated process.

Corpses are discreetly offloaded from an alternative exit, to avoid killing the holiday vibe for other passengers, and delivered to a local funeral company for repatriation. Accompanying partners or family members usually disembark too, to deal with the arrangements and paperwork.

Someone from the cruise line will be there to assist, but they don’t pay for your body to be flown home. It’s not the cruise company’s problem.

In one case in 2009, an 87-year-old woman died 36 days into a 115-day voyage around the world. Her son, travelling with her, organised the cremation at a nearby port. He then stayed on the ship for the next two months, accompanied by his mother’s remains.

You can’t be cremated on the ship, as there are no crematoriums on ships, so your ashes won’t be scattered at sea. However, you CAN have your ashes scattered at sea if you came onboard in an urn. But this must be requested and organised by your family (or you, if you’re a good planner) before sailing.

Very rarely, people are buried at sea, but this only happens if there are no doubts over the cause of death.

Apparently, only 200 people die on cruises per year, mostly from natural causes. Some passengers fall overboard (you have to climb up on the side of the ship and/or be very drunk for this to happen). Others jump (suicide at sea) and a small number are pushed off balconies or killed in cabins by pissed off partners (murder at sea).

Crew occasionally die in accidents, especially when the ship is docking in bad weather or, ironically, during safety drills.

All big ships have doctors and medical facilities, but smaller ships may not. Be sure to take out travel insurance to cover the potential costs of treatment or flying your body home – just in case it’s your last cruise.

Bon voyage!

Louise Goldsbury

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In 2013 I was named Best Travel Writer at the National Travel Industry Awards. And until someone corrects me, I'm claiming to be the youngest cruise editor in the Southern Hemisphere. Editor of Cruise Weekly since 2009, I also contribute to Sydney's Sun Herald newspaper and various travel magazines and websites.


  1. So there you go,now we know.

  2. Leighna at 10:53 pm

    Always wondered about this! Thanks.

  3. Last paragraph very important. Insurance. My mother’s then partner was removed from a cruise ship in a very poor state and declared terminal. No airline would touch him, so he had to charter an air ambulance so he could go home to die. F- all change from $250k and insurance covered barely one third. His children (not me thankfully) had to liquidate their inheritance early.

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