Coping with the red tape of an overseas death

My husband, Jim, and I thought we were smart, well-prepared travelers with our duplicate passport photos and our extra antibiotics. After all, we had traveled extensively and Jim even wrote travel articles for various newspaper travel sections and ultimately even the photography column for ITN. I guess we were in total denial about the possibility of actual death on a trip.

Unfortunately, last May Jim did indeed die suddenly as he was photographing flowers in Monet’s Garden at Giverny, France. And I was thrust into one of the most demanding, frustrating weeks of my life. I hope my having encountered and being forced to solve problems with the ensuing red tape and bureaucracy will help others plan in advance how to cope with them.

Some of the situations were undoubtedly unique, and I’m not sure anyone could prevent them in advance. As we rested on a bench and Jim’s attack began, I cried, “Help! Help,” but no one nearby understood English. I finally got up and pulled a man over to help me get Jim on the ground so I could try to do my version of CPR.

Fortunately, another man came to my assistance, John Redd, a wonderful American doctor who kept me semi-sane over the next three hours. Seeing him running toward me out of the corner of my eye was such a welcome sight, as I truly didn’t know what I was doing. I’m going to brush up on CPR, having felt so helpless when it was needed.

Dr. Redd and another park employee took turns working on Jim for about 30 minutes until the ambulance came. He told me he got a “thready pulse” once but he thought Jim had died almost instantly.

One of the worst memories of that day was sitting for 30 minutes with the body bag in a, then, closed and deserted garden waiting for the mortuary people to arrive.

At that point, my challenging week began. Dr. Redd had the presence of mind to contact the American Embassy in Paris and have them fax the necessary papers to the local mortuary. This was especially urgent, as it was late on a Friday afternoon before a long holiday weekend in France and the U.S. At least I could begin the mortuary process.

One man in the garden spoke some English and lent me his cell phone to notify our children. My lack of French was a terrible drawback in rural France as, I’m sure, the lack of an ability to speak any foreign language would be in a similar situation. Fortunately, my daughter, Rebecca, had studied for a year in France and she and her husband flew to my aid immediately, overnight (at $2,000 each, round trip). They were such a welcome sight.

One absolutely needs an interpreter, and I later was told the American Embassy will, for a charge, help you hire one.

While Rebecca was the logical choice of my young folk to fly over, as she spoke French, my son, Matt, couldn’t have come as he had let his passport expire. Something to consider is having a family member keep an up-to-date passport in case their help and support is needed.

When the three of us visited the mortuary the next day, it was discovered that our American credit cards would not fit in the French credit card machines and so we had to produce $3,400-plus in cash for Jim’s cremation.

We had an American Express travel medical protection plan and I used the international phone number to call AmEx for any possible help. I was told just to go into the American Express office in Paris to get the cash wire transferred on our credit card.

When we got there, I was put on a phone to the States only to be told, “He is dead; we canceled the card.” They gave in to no amount of pleading that, yes, it was a business account but only two of us were on the card and I had paid the bills on it for both of us for over 30 years.

Again, Rebecca came to the rescue. We got the money on her card but had to go to two post offices to retrieve it, the first not having enough cash. It would be wise to set it up with some friend or family member at home to have access to a large amount of cash that could be transferred.

We made many train trips from Paris to the mortuary in Vernon. No one there spoke English, either, but through Rebecca I was informed that I had to show proof of marriage before they could cremate. They were astounded that I didn’t have my marriage certificate along.

Unfortunately, after 43 years of marriage, I had absolutely no idea where the certificate even was! A good friend was sent to our house to go through files for anything else that might prove I was married to Jim, and he faxed over more than 20 joint-ownership papers and even a yellowed news clipping of our young marriage. Finally, after about three days of wheel spinning, I had our lawyer fax our will, which did the trick.

Again, this makes a good case for carrying along this kind of proof, as apparently this is a fairly universal requirement.

We had to eventually meet with the mayor of Giverny, who was the person who was to stamp the papers allowing me to cremate. She said, “You have sent me every paper but the one I really need, but I’m going to sign these papers. However, the police will have to finalize the process with a red seal on the box of ashes and I can’t guarantee they will do this to let you out of the country.” So the suspense continued for several more days.

Speaking of the “box,” also keep in mind that airports won’t let you carry a metal urn through security; a wooden box is necessary. And this mortuary had never heard of shipping the ashes home and would not consider it.

We now were feeling like we had jumped through the worst of the hurdles as we took two trains to the town with the crematorium. We hiked a half a mile from the train station only to be told, “He’s too big. Come back at 3.”

We went back to Paris, where we decided we’d give the embassy one last call, even though they hadn’t told us we needed to meet with them again. We were told that of course we had to come in to have them stamp the papers from the crematorium and, no, they wouldn’t be open at 4:30 when we got back, so we’d have to cancel flights home the next day to finalize this process.

Taking a chance, we visited the embassy in person and after an hour’s wait finally convinced an employee to stay a bit late and get our papers stamped. The lesson here is to learn immediately the needs of your embassy in whichever country such a disaster happens.

Upon our return home, communication with the people at American Express who handled the travel medical protection plan, which also had an insurance death benefit, took about five months, with an initial denial of the claim, but they did finally pay the cremation costs and the death benefit.

Hopefully, my lessons will be of some help. At least one can remember to take proof of marriage, arrange money transfers, deal more efficiently with the embassy and line up a friend or relative who will come over immediately to be by your side as you work through all of these problems.

I plan to continue traveling, but now I realize I need to take a notarized statement giving authority to either a traveling companion or family member at home to make similar arrangements.

I do have some happy news to share. Rebecca is expecting a first baby in June, right about the time she gets her degree at NYU.
Largo, FL