What to do in the event of a death abroad

This item appears on page 39 of the May 2016 issue.

The July 2015 “Boarding Pass” column contained this query from Barbara Dozier of Denver, Colorado: “I was wondering if you have any information on what to do in the event of a death abroad? How do you go about returning the person to the USA or arranging for burial abroad? My husband and I are seniors in good health and we’re planning to travel to Europe. If something should happen to one or both of us, what do we need to have prior to leaving the US and what do we do in Europe? We just want to be somewhat prepared, should the occasion arise.”

Following are subscribers’ responses received.


I noticed the question from Barbara Dozier. The advice my wife and I give to our next of kin, in the event of our deaths while traveling, is to cremate us in the country where we died. This may not appeal to everyone, but this is what we tell our children.

Regarding an event of death, there are three possible situations that could happen: (1) both of us die, (2) one of the two of us dies while we’re traveling together or (3) one of us dies as a single traveler.

I’ve had experience with the third situation. My brother, Joseph A. Sigg, a retired US Navy Commander who was single, died in Portugal in October 2008. As next of kin, I received a phone call from the American Embassy in Lisbon. I was told it would not be necessary for me to go to Portugal.

The embassy consul was extremely helpful, providing a list of options and their costs: burial in Portugal, burial in the US, cremation and shipping of the ashes or local disposition of the ashes. A list of recommended funeral homes in Portugal was included.

The embassy inventoried my brother’s personal effects and sent me two copies of the list to indicate disposition. I checked off which items I wanted returned and which ones to donate to charity. Later, I received the items along with a check in US currency (converted from euros) equal to the amount of cash my brother had been carrying at the time he died.

Meanwhile, I phoned the funeral home and elected to have the body cremated and the ashes shipped to me. After negotiating a lower price, I had my bank wire the payment. I picked up the ashes at the airport in Tampa and delivered them to the national cemetery in Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas, for a full military burial.

Foreign countries have different rules than we do in the United States. I did not receive a death certificate from Portugal. Instead, the US Embassy issued Form DS 2060, “Report of the Death of an American Citizen Abroad,” which was in English.* 

You never know how many accounts will require copies of Form DS 2060. I had 15 copies sent to me; I used 12 of them, handing them over, as necessary, at banks, credit unions, insurance companies, brokerage firms, even the court, as proof of death and to transfer titles.

In Portugal, they do not put the cause of death in writing.** This made insurance companies here unhappy, and banks went ballistic: “What do you mean ‘No cause of death’?!”

Bernard V. Sigg
Winter Haven, FL

*A death certificate is required for Form DS 2060 to be issued. It is unclear why Mr. Sigg did not receive a death certificate, but the US consulate must have had it in order to complete the paperwork about his brother’s death.

**In Portugal, the cause of death is entered into a confidential database and is not available to anyone but the deceased’s next of kin. For a record of the cause of death, the next of kin may apply to the hospital where the post-mortem was performed or to the office of the public prosecutor. (In Portugal, any sudden death must be investigated by the local prosecutor.) The US consulate can assist the next of kin in this process.


While the following doesn’t involve a death abroad, my experience does relate to what to do in the event of a death while traveling.

Above all, you should have an Advance Directive for Health Care and a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, appointing someone to make health care decisions on your behalf. And you should carry copies of them with you when traveling!

On a cross-country driving trip my wife and I were making in the US, she suffered a stroke while in Virginia. I had neither of these documents with me, and the hospital wouldn’t accept my status to make health care decisions on her behalf.

From across the country, I called a neighbor to enter our house, directed him to the documents and had him fax copies to the hospital before my wife’s subsequent death. 

Perhaps someone can profit from my experience.

James McGee, Sun City, CA


The July 2015 “Boarding Pass” column referenced the 2005 article “Coping With the Red Tape of an Overseas Death,” by Betty Patterson (Feb. ’05, pg. 16), which can be found by doing a search on the ITN website. I found the article thought-provoking.

Mercifully, I have not experienced a death abroad and have remained quite healthy, but, after reading Betty’s description of her experience, my husband and I now carry certified copies of our wedding license with our passports. 

Also, I joined the Neptune Society (corporate office at 1250 S. Pine Island Rd., Ste. 500, Plantation, FL 33324; 954/556-9400, www.neptunesociety.com), a cremation service that offers a “Transportation and Protection Plan.”

Coverage in this plan includes transport of the beneficiary’s body from site of death to a licensed holding facility or licensed crematory, obtaining all the necessary permits and death certificate, paying for the crematory fees and all necessary permits, providing an urn suitable for transport and returning cremated remains to a designated person in accordance with the prearranged funeral contract between the purchaser and the Neptune Society.

Hopefully, when necessary, my survivors will have assistance only a phone call away.

Wanda Bahde, Summerfield, FL


I’d like to help others avoid unnecessary additional pain due to a death while traveling.

In Riga, Latvia, in May 2014, my husband died suddenly of a heart attack. A few years earlier, through the Neptune Society, we had purchased a pre-need cremation plan with additional worldwide protection. Our membership cards were always with us. 

I had only a few minor decisions to make (for example, I left all of my husband’s clothing to be donated). The American Embassy handled all of the paperwork beyond that. 

My husband was cremated two days after his death. On the third day, I received his ashes along with a folder containing all of the Latvian documents along with their official translations plus certified death certificates from the US Embassy. 

Having rescheduled my flights, I headed home with his ashes in my carry-on luggage on day four. 

There is absolutely no way that the staff at the embassy, or the locals, could have done more to help during this painful time.

There were, however, some things I could have done to be better prepared, including having the right emergency phone numbers. I recommend learning the emergency numbers (similar to “911” in the US) used in any countries you visit as well as the phone numbers of the US embassies located there.

The phone number on my Neptune card was not the number needed at the time. I now have the correct telephone and fax numbers taped to my card.

Expect that the authorities may insist on an autopsy.

Bringing a body home can be a nightmare. It is far easier for all concerned to conform to local customs concerning cremation or burial, unless arrangements have been made in advance. 

During our previous years as cruising sailors, we saw many endure delays and hardships that could have been avoided by flexibility. 

However, I cannot imagine anything better than a pre-need plan. The ambassador at the US Embassy told me that he had never seen a death abroad handled so quickly and smoothly by the authorities.

Doreen LePage
Boynton Beach, FL

In the event of the death of an American citizen abroad, the nearest US consulate will be responsible for working with the next of kin to get the deceased’s paperwork and estate in order. To find contact information for US consulates worldwide, visit www.usembassy.gov and click on the region with the country sought and then on the country.