Originally published in the ITIJ Assistance & Repatriation Review.

Tailored To Fit


Connecting with clients and anticipating change are just two of the key factors in providing both travel assistance and international funeral assistance. Fiona Greenwood , operations manager at UK-based funeral repatriation company Rowland Brothers International, provides a window on her world.

As an international funeral director, building relationships with your clients, and providing clear, accurate and personalised advice on all aspects of global funeral repatriation is so important. Communication is crucial – with both the bereaved and the company that appoints you – to ensure that you respect all matters that might affect the situation. From policy limits to faith time limits, international funeral directors take care to balance family needs and assistance criteria to find a solution and reassure families. We spend 100 per cent of our time researching solutions, and take pride in being both local experts and globally informed.

In terms of what will happen once Britain leaves the European Union (EU), international funeral directors know for sure that their service levels must remain constant, but until the EU agrees on the terms and conditions, we cannot predict if there will be any customs or administrative changes. Funeral repatriation is traditionally paper driven, and regulation within the EU has changed little during years of EU membership. Any move that streamlines or simplifies the paperwork between countries would be welcomed, but it is a continuing irony that the countries that are closest to the UK geographically often need the most paperwork to accompany a deceased on their final journey home.

When an international funeral director is appointed, it is responding to the family choice around where they want a funeral to take place, which is most often at home. But where is ‘home’? If the deceased was surrounded by their family on a visit to relatives, perhaps a funeral where the tragedy occurred is the best solution. Family could honour the deceased with a prompt funeral, within faith time limits, rather than delay the arrangements with repatriation to another country.

Carrying out people’s last wishes can be simple, provided that the all-important conversation has taken place sometime in advance, or the wishes have been written down. For someone who never wanted a big funeral, a simple cremation with no or few attendees, and the ashes scattered afterwards, might be perfect. That was David Bowie’s choice and his family obliged, but matters can be more complicated if family members cannot agree. If the discord continues, a legal ruling may be necessary.

In England, there have been situations where parents have gone to court because they cannot agree on whether to arrange a local funeral or repatriation to another country; and, more recently, a court made a judgement authorising cryonic preservation when parents could not agree about following their young daughter’s last wishes.

If the cause of death is sudden and completely unexpected, which is so often the case when someone dies away from home, international funeral directors often work alongside other organisations and have to respect their protocols. For example, with a seaside or swimming pool tragedy, a traffic collision, or a climbing accident, all involved parties must wait for the host government to release the deceased. If there is more than one casualty, the identification process is crucial, as one error in identification usually means two families are affected. Unlike is often portrayed in television dramas, it takes time to be sure about identification. Visual identification is not reliable, even though families are naturally desperate for news. Sadly, we witnessed this heartbreak recently after the Manchester bombing, when a young girl was missing, and finally it was sadly confirmed that she was among the victims and not the survivors.

News of a sudden death is always terrible, but a homicide away from home adds yet another dimension. Discussing repatriation or cremation in these circumstances, families have even more questions. What is the impact of a cremation abroad versus coffin repatriation back home? If the opportunity of a post mortem on home soil is their most important consideration, what if there is no insurance and funds are limited? Cremation may then become the only option.

Jurisdiction is often an issue, with families expecting that their own police force or government officials can investigate. There is often great disappointment that home authorities cannot intervene in the way they expect. Add to any unusual or tragic circumstances the onslaught of media attention, or a very public display of very personal matters, and emotions can run very high indeed. If local legislation means an inquest is opened, either in resort or at home, families relive the whole situation months or even years later, much like when the media plays footage of a dramatic but fatal event again and again.

Some tragedies abroad are not only sudden and unexpected but are reportedly self-inflicted. Mental health has received high profile attention recently, and international funeral repatriation teams would do well to undertake specific training to help them when they talk to vulnerable people, as we have done at Rowland Brothers International (RBI).

Families dealing with grief when a relative has taken their own life may find it difficult to forgive the person who died, and also to live day to day with the judgement of others around what happened and why. Like any situation where there is no insurance, or if cover is declined, families could find themselves in financial turmoil. Many families bear both an emotional but also a financial burden, but those affected by suicide are also perplexed by a situation that has unfolded without any prior warning and left them wondering what they could have done to prevent it.

What do families expect will happen when they are making decisions about repatriation? They may have some understanding of the system that applies at home, but this does not always match that of the host government where their loved one died. The aim for our industry, then, is funeral ‘fusion’ rather than ‘confusion’, observing local laws while anticipating others. Best practise is arriving at the funeral destination with all the documents in place, and a gentle reminder to wait before finalising the funeral to allow for local administration or flight delays. It’s possible that the recent British Airways problems delayed not only holidays, weddings and honeymoons, but funerals too.

“Working together has always been our aim, across the industry as well as across borders,” says Steve Rowland, managing director of RBI. “Business and leisure passengers increasingly expect to access all areas, and unfortunately bereavement away from home is increasingly familiar worldwide.

For our team, winning ITIJ ’s Ancillary Assistance Service Provider of the Year Award in 2016 acknowledged a consistent approach, a positive and flexible attitude often in very difficult circumstances, plus reliable costs, all sensitively delivered to support our client and the grieving family. We never underestimate the impact on families who suddenly find themselves in life changing situations.

Our relationship with them is brief, often when the atmosphere is highly charged, with many matters competing for their attention, but they always know where to find us if they need us later. Those families who find the time to write to us, sometimes months later when they find the strength, inspire us to continue building global relationships with insurance and assistance specialists, continue with our operational and bereavement educational days and take our service to the next level across the world.”

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