Last rites

No
one likes to talk about death, but it is something HR should be prepared for in
the event that an employee dies on assignment or on a business trip overseas,
says Gavin Evans

Michael
Weiland knows a thing or two about businessmen dying abroad: it can be a tricky
business as well as a sad one, even when everything seems to be going according
to plan.

Through
his position as the international services and medical affairs manager at
Global Emergency Medical Services, he is regularly confronted with formidable
obstacles when it comes to the task of bringing the body back home. His least
favourite example, and least favourite memory, is the tale of the senior
investment banker who died on a business trip to Algiers a few years ago.

"I
was assured that his body was in the morgue and intact, and it looked like a
routine operation. I arranged for the body to be sent home, received
confirmation that his remains were on the plane and went to Kennedy Airport to
ensure the casket was safely loaded on to the hearse, which I’d arranged to be
waiting on the runway." The banker’s family had similar expectations and
were patiently waiting at home for the arrival of the casket, while putting
together the last-minute preparations for a major-league funeral and wake in
Brooklyn.

What
neither Michael nor the family had been told was that the electricity in the
refrigeration section of the Algiers morgue had been off for a couple of days.
The morgue staff had unilaterally decided an incinerated foreign body was
better than a smelly one. So Michael stood on the Kennedy runway, watching the
luggage being loaded off the plane, but to his increasing dismay there was no
casket. "I became so worried that I sprinted up the stairs into the
aircraft, waving the papers, and after a few minutes the flight attendant
handed me a small cardboard box, containing his ashes. Fortunately I had taken
a priest with me, and he went to the family’s door first while I waited
outside, and when I heard a hysterical shriek from inside, I paused for a
minute and then took in the box."

It’s
not always so messy, but most companies find it is more difficult to bring home
a dead person than to arrange emergency medical treatment or evacuation for
those still alive. The first difficulty they find is that international medical
insurance stops at death.

Karen
Froud, of the British-based health insurer Bupa International, says that in the
case of serious illness her company will immediately pull out all the stops,
including emergency evacuation, but if the member dies, the story is rather
different – in effect, death ends the contract.

She
explains, "We would advise the company to contact the embassy for
practical advice, but we ourselves offer no special procedures for death,
beyond providing a doctor to sign the death certificate, and we don’t cover for
returning the body home." Which means it is up to the deceased’s company to
cut through the red tape and sort out the mess. And as Weiland puts it,
"Deaths in a foreign country can be a web of bureaucratic compliance,
religious rites woven into laws and payoffs to everyone in the chain of events."

The
problems vary according to the circumstances. For a start it may take a while
for the death to be discovered. "We’ve had situations where a businessman
has died in his hotel and the maid thought he was sleeping, and just closed the
door, and it took another 24 hours to discover he was dead, and even then the
hotel had no information about whom to contact," says Weiland.

This
is most likely if the traveller is alone in a foreign city. He will then be at
the "mercy" of locals at the time of death. He may not be carrying
his passport or any company document, which could mean that the foreign
hospital or police service has difficulty identifying him, and his body remains
at the local morgue for several days before he is reported missing and traced.

But
even if he is quickly identified, you are by no means home and dry. If the
police suspect that there was a crime involved, the body may be part of the
evidence in a lengthy trial. On the other hand, if the person was the victim of
an accident or a crime, his family might decide to pursue legal action. In both
cases, his company can expect to cover the costs of an autopsy, and they may
need to retain an independent pathologist.

Most
experts say that the "most convenient" death is one that occurs in
hospital, because then a doctor routinely signs the death certificate. But this
might create its own difficulties. For example if it is suspected that the
person died from a communicable disease, you can expect a long delay before the
body is released, and local health officials may demand cremation.

If
the employee has lived abroad for some time, the authorities may be reluctant
to release his body unless all his taxes are paid. They tend to hold the body
as a kind of ransom, because it is their only means of getting the money.

There
have been several reported cases of caskets being used to smuggle contraband,
particularly drugs, so in some countries it may be prudent to check for this
before the body is flown home. And finally, the deceased’s family may want to
accompany the body home.

Weiland
recommends taking great care about the logistics of this trip, to the point of
booking them in business or first class seats on the left side of the plane. As
he explains, "Cargo is normally loaded from the right, and the first class
and business class are forward of the cargo hatches, so family members looking
out of the left front windows are less likely to be upset by seeing the casket
on the tarmac or being loaded – and sometimes the airport staff drop it, which
makes things worse. An outburst of grief may scare the crew and passengers and
cause the family to miss the flight."

What
it all points to is a hands-on, prepared-for-the-worst approach well before
disaster strikes. Ginny Hollis, vice-president of the Connecticut-based global
medical insurer Cigna International, says she is regularly confronted by
corporate negligence when it comes to the death or serious illness of employees
abroad. "Most American companies are pretty lax," she says.
"There are many reasons for this, but one of them relates to internal
organisation. Basically their travel divisions, their medical or benefits
departments and their HR divisions don’t co-ordinate with each other."

However,
Arielle Benozio, PR officer for the French-based health insurer
Europe-Assistance, says that Western European companies are becoming better
attuned to handling death and disaster faced by their employees while
travelling abroad. "Today most European companies are more knowledgeable
about the risks, so they are less likely to be taken by surprise, and the
reason for this is probably that international business travel is becoming more
commonplace."

Some
companies learn through their own hard experience. Three years ago the Korean
chief executive of Daewoo South Africa was murdered in an armed robbery. The
process of replacing him, bringing the body home to Seoul and assisting his
family provided an object lesson for everyone in the industry, not least Daewoo
itself. And the lessons spread to other motor manufacturers. German-based BMW,
for instance, promptly reviewed its procedures for dealing with tragedies
abroad.

"If
anything goes wrong – for example, a death, a car-jacking, a serious illness –
we take a hands-on approach from the word go," says BMW’s HR director
Christine Watson. "There is nothing we wouldn’t do to assist the families,
even long after they return home, and that includes psychological counselling."

Tips
for handling the death of an employee abroad


Ensure your HR department is well versed on how to handle an overseas death and
is kept informed when anyone is abroad.


Retain up-to-date information on how to contact travelling employees at all
times. If one of them dies, you should be the first to know.


Make sure you can contact his or her spouse, partner or children at home – not
just an address and home phone number, but also mobile and work numbers. It is
useful to retain details of religious affiliation, including the name of a
priest or minister.


Be prepared to ask someone within the company who knows the employee’s family
to take on the task of breaking the news. It is best not to inform the next of
kin about the death over the telephone.


Include the family in all the preparations for the return of the body, and make
sure you are fully briefed on their wishes and they on your actions.


Be prepared to contact the embassy immediately and request their assistance as
soon as you learn of the death. A pre-prepared list of embassy or consulate
numbers in every city where your employees visit is useful.


It helps to have a reliable agent or contact in the city where the death occurs
– someone you can rely on to monitor arrangements.


If you have several employees working abroad it may be worth retaining the
services of an international emergency medical service with experience in
returning bodies and bringing families of dead employees home.


Alternatively consider dispatching a company official to the scene. Even if the
employee’s spouse is there, she or he will need someone else to take charge of
the paperwork.


Expect emotional volatility from family members, particularly those who are
living abroad with the deceased.

Possible
areas of expense


Death certificate (multiple certified copies for insurance, customs, airlines,
etc).


Autopsy.


Lawyers’ fees (if there is any legal dispute).


Foreign funeral home or body removal services (including preparation of the
body or cremation).


Coffin (or urn).


Delivery of body to foreign airport (particularly if the death occurs in a
rural area).


Transportation fees (including cargo charges by carrier and possible
intermediate stopover handling fees. Airline charges are on a cargo basis,
usually based on 100lb or 50kg weight).


Transportation on arrival in home country from airport to final destination.

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