Advertisement

What happens when someone dies on a cruise

helicopter take off from emergency in cruise ship on pier
There are an estimated 200 annual passenger deaths on cruise ships globally – here's what occurs should the worst happen - Alamy

It won’t shock anyone to learn that cruise lines prefer to avoid talking about people dying on their ships, but there are an estimated 200 annual passenger deaths – hardly surprising given that 31.5 million people take a holiday at sea each year, and their average age is approaching 50.

The most recent incident saw an elderly lady on Royal Caribbean International’s “Ultimate World Cruise” pass away earlier this month. The nine-month journey, which began in Miami in December, has gone somewhat “viral” in recent weeks, with passengers posting TikTok videos detailing the minutiae of onboard life.

Passengers do not share cruise lines’ reluctance to discuss the issue, and, from my experience, seem to have a morbid fascination about what happens when someone dies at sea. The reality is rather low-key, with procedures being discreet, and usually initiated by coded crew announcements: “Operation Bright Star”, indicating a medical emergency and “Operation Rising Star”, which indicates that a passenger has died.

31.5 million people take a holiday at sea each year, and their average age is approaching 50
31.5 million people take a holiday at sea each year, and their average age is approaching 50 - getty

On one of my first cruises aboard P&O Canberra (now retired) in the early 1990s, the resident comedian nicknamed the main lounge the Chapel of Rest in tribute to the considerable number of elderly guests who routinely gathered there each morning for a post-breakfast snooze, only waking up as the announcement for lunch boomed out.

The quip was dropped when, as we cruised off northern Norway, a passenger was taken seriously ill, forcing Canberra to change course and speed towards the nearest port for medical assistance. Sadly the guest passed away while we were still en route, but as the captain solemnly conveyed the news, the onboard rumour mill went into overdrive, and this became the main talking point on the ship. Guests gossiped that there had been not one, but three fatalities, though this later proved to be untrue.

It is hard to get a precise handle on how many cruise passengers die each year, with nearly every cruise company I contacted flatly refusing to even engage in a conversation about the issue, let alone divulge figures.

Some estimates have put the figure at around 200 annually, working out at around four a week, though according to a study by the International Journal of Travel Medicine and Global Health there were 623 reported deaths of cruise ship passengers and crew between 2000 and 2019, based on data from 78 ocean and river cruise companies. The findings pinpointed the main cause of deaths among passengers as either falling overboard or on to lower decks, cardiac incidents (in a high-profile case in 2013, 74-year-old journalist and broadcaster David Frost died from a heart attack on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth. He was on board to give a talk about his career) and suicides.

A rescue helicopter prepares to land on a cruise ship
Barely a few weeks go by without a report of someone toppling from a cruise ship into the sea - Getty/iStock

Barely a few weeks go by without a report of someone toppling from a cruise ship into the sea. The website Cruise Junkie records a running total of such incidents involving cruise ships and ferries that shows 2019 notching up the highest number with 29 overboards, and there have already been three instances this year. A cruise line source admitted there were a surprisingly high proportion of suicides, and suggested that some book a cruise as a “last hurrah”. While death through foul play is thankfully very rare, such incidents tend to hit the headlines.

Due to the intrinsic nature of cruising – with sailings that can run into months, and a relatively high average age of passengers – crews have to be prepared for the worst, and they generally are.

All cruise ships have morgues which are generally refrigerated stainless steel rooms, the largest of which can hold up to 10 bodies in cool conditions until the ship reaches the next port – though sometimes they can be kept onboard for up to a week.

When bodies are offloaded, it is discreetly done from a small exit not used by passengers and they are handed, without ceremony, into the care of a local funeral company. A death certificate is issued and arrangements are then made to fly the deceased home, which can be bureaucratic and expensive.

If the dead person had adequate travel insurance, this will cover such costs, but if there are problems or exclusions, possibly relating to an undeclared medical condition, bills can run into thousands of pounds and the next of kin generally have to pay.

On world cruises and longer voyages when ships are at sea for lengthy periods and away from ports, too many dead bodies can become a headache. There have been stories of morgues filling up, and bodies having to be put in wine cellars.

In one incident in 2009, an 87-year-old woman – Marion Schaefer – died 36 days into a 114-night Holland America world cruise. Keen for her to complete her final voyage, Marion’s son, who was also on board, found a solution. Her remains were cremated at the next port of call – Semarang, Indonesia – allowing him, and an urn with his mother’s ashes, to finish the trip.

Paramedics resting near an ambulance parked in a port near a large ship
If deaths occur onboard cruise ships, bodies are offloaded discreetly through exits not used by guests - Alamy

Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, which caters for a more mature clientele, said it was relatively rare for passengers to pass away on its ships.

“When this does happen, modern cruise ships are well equipped to deal with this with the utmost respect, care and well-equipped medical facilities,” said the company’s director of health services Dr Kate Bunyan.

“On board, procedures would be followed in the same way as they would in a land-based hospital and for loved ones, bereavement services are available both for the remainder of the cruise and once it has finished.”

In years past, it was possible for passengers who had died during a voyage to be buried at sea – saving on expense and hassle – but this was rare and could only take place if the ship’s doctor had no doubts over the cause of death.

In such instances, ceremonies would be held early in the morning before other passengers were up and the ship would be slowed to its lowest speed as the captain read the service.

Senior officers would form a guard of honour around the body which, contained in a biodegradable body bag and covered with a flag, would be placed on a hydraulic platform and tipped into the sea at the appropriate moment.

However, a cruise expert recalled how on one such solemn occasion an officer cadet accidentally pulled the wrong lever, sending the body plunging off the side of the ship and into the waves before the widow had arrived on deck for the service.

In the ensuing panic, sacks of potatoes were hurriedly substituted and covered up so the service could proceed as planned with the next of kin none the wiser.

Nowadays, the bereaved can bring the ashes of their loved ones in a biodegradable urn, accompanied by death and cremation certificates, for a seagoing send-off. Not only is this regarded as easier and more environmentally acceptable, there’s far less scope for anything to go wrong.