Dealing with an unexpected death on the road

Image: Road
Internationally, traffic accidents top the list (about one-third of Americans overseas perished in a car wreck) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Martin Holtkamp / Getty Images stock

No one expects to come home in a casket.

But more Americans are. The number of claims made on death benefits by On Call International, a travel assistance service in Salem, N.H., has almost doubled in the last three years, rising from 125 claims in 2005 to 247 last year. Its numbers reflect a broader industry trend.

“More people are traveling,” says Jon Ansell, founding president of the US Travel Insurance Association, a trade group. “More people are dying.”

What’s killing them?

Internationally, traffic accidents top the list (about one-third of Americans killed overseas perished in a car wreck) followed by homicide (17 percent), and drowning (13 percent) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Roughly 6,000 Americans pass away while they’re overseas every year, but that number is believed to be low, since not every American death is reported to the government. By comparison to U.S. injury fatalities (not just travelers), road traffic crashes accounted for 27 percent of deaths, while homicide was at 11 percent and drowning at just 2 percent.

If you pass away while you’re on vacation, your family and loved ones could experience headaches that needlessly compound their grief. There’s extra paperwork, arrangements for the return of your remains, and often, an unplanned stay in a faraway place to bring you back home.

I know about that firsthand because my family recently experienced an unexpected death that involved travel. Here are six strategies for dealing with a death on the road — either yours or a loved one’s:

Get insurance
Having an insurance policy can lessen — but certainly not eliminate — the stress of losing a loved one on vacation. I know that it’s a little macabre, but reviewing the death benefits on your policy is critically important. Make sure there are provisions for emergency assistance, return of remains and coverage for family members who will have to travel to wherever you die to claim your body. The State Department can offer some assistance to your family but they’ll still pay $10,000 or more to get your remains back home if you don’t have insurance coverage. “Coordinating the repatriation of the mortal remains can be complicated and time-consuming,” says Dan McGinnity, a spokesman for AIG Travel Guard.

Tell a friend you’ll be away
Let a loved one know where you’ll be, and make sure they have all the paperwork necessary to claim your body. Phyllis Zimbler Miller, a novelist from Los Angeles, remembers one of her husband’s clients who passed away in his hotel while traveling to Italy. “It took the hotel days to figure out whom to contact,” she remembers. That prompted Miller’s husband, an accountant who specializes in estate planning, to begin advising his clients to carry information on who should be contacted in case of emergency. Incidentally, she adds, this might be a good time to get all of your paperwork in order. “If you die without appropriate estate planning documents, your heirs are in for a huge mess going through probate hell,” she adds.

Travel light
Jo Myers, author of “Good to Go — The ABCs of Death and Dying for Baby Boomers and Their Parents,” says making pre-arrangements can be helpful when you die while you’re traveling. That way, your next of kin needs only make a call to the funeral home to start the process of returning you to your final resting place. Myers says if you’re traveling with a friend, that person can be named a personal representative, who would be authorized to make decisions and arrangements on your family’s behalf. For people who die while on vacation, direct cremation is a popular option, because it reduces some of the transportation expenses associated with the return of remains. “With proper documentation, remains may be taken on an airplane as a carry-on item,” she says. “Remains may also be mailed to survivors by cremation providers.”

Lean on someone
If you’ve just lost a loved one on the road, find a support group. When Tara La Bouff’s brother died while he was in Kauai last year, they turned to his employer, US Airways. La Bouff’s brother was a pilot, and was reported missing while snorkeling. US Airways flew several family members to Hawaii to claim the body. “The family was there until we could fly home with him, and were graciously chaperoned the entire time by a team of airline staff,” she recalls. She says turning to the airline was the right move. “We all were amazed by the amount of support it provided,” she says. Many companies have insurance that covers their employees in the event of an accidental death — even when they’re off the clock. If nothing else, an employer can offer much-needed support in a time of need.

Take your time
While handling the details of an autopsy or funeral can take several days, you have to also be patient with yourself as you process a death on the road. You need time, too. When the son of a friend was killed on a surfing vacation in Costa Rica, Bonnie Russell, a Web site publisher from San Diego, Calif., watched the family come together for a memorial service. “Putting together the service saved my friend’s sanity,” she remembers. It wasn’t the first time that she’s dealt with a death while traveling. “What’s needed is the critical time for the brain to process information,” she says, adding, “this takes anywhere from hours to days.” If a loved one has died while on vacation, give yourself an extra day or two to deal with the aftermath of an unexpected death.

Put the event into perspective
Bonnie Arends lost her son, Greg, in a car accident five years ago. His twin, Steve, survived the crash, but was left in a semi-comatose state for six months and today lives with a brain injury that severely affects his speech. Arends was determined to help prevent the tragedy from repeating itself, so she became a spokeswoman for a survey of young drivers sponsored by State Farm that urges parents to be aware of what their kids are doing behind the wheel. “Vehicle crashes can happen in a split second,” she told me. “And from that moment on, life may never be the same again. We can never assume that it will happen to someone else and not us. We need to be proactive in doing all we can to instill good driving technique and habits into all young drivers.”

When a loved one dies while traveling, you can do everything right — including finding the right support group, giving yourself enough time to deal with the shock of losing a friend and making sure your papers are filled out — but still suffer needless pain in your pocketbook. Darryl Roberts, author of “Profits of Death,” says passing away while traveling can be costly. Often, too costly. “The process of using two homes and shipping the body will likely cause the cost to roughly double the norm,” he says.

All the more reason to be wary of come-ons by a funeral home, like buying a pricey “protective casket,” which strikes an emotional chord with most people, he says. As the surviving family member, you’re not just dealing with an industry you probably know nothing about; you’re also in a faraway place, trying to cope with different customs and maybe a different language.

Be careful not to get scammed.

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