As the President of FIAT-IFTA, how is your organisation looking to guide developments in the funeral industry into the future?
FIAT-IFTA is one of the oldest and biggest funeral organisations in the world, and we are able to manage a range of different things. A couple of months ago we had a discussion with ALPAR [the Latin American Association of Cemeteries and Funeral Services] about organising a ‘Day of the Funeral Directors’, which would promote the work of funeral directors, for example. But for repatriation, from September of this year we have had a manual on how to properly do repatriations using commercial airlines. IATA [the International Air Transport Association] and FIAT-IFTA have built up procedures which are in line with professional standards. There is also the challenge of different regional and national laws. This is the main issue for FIAT-IFTA: we would like to implement the same laws in each country [governing funeral repatriations], but this is the biggest challenge.
Would FIAT-IFTA consider lobbying governments to standardise their laws surrounding repatriation?
As I say, we have one of the biggest influences of all funeral associations, and can provide to each country that is trying to create a new funeral law or repatriation law some scope or standards that should be implemented in that kind of law. Together with the local associations, and with the support of the FIAT-IFTA board, we can try to have some impact working with people who are involved in projects like these.
For medical repatriations, a great deal of importance is placed on the speed of the repatriation. How time-sensitive are funeral repatriations, given the lack of medical urgency?
It’s up to the country, the culture and the religion. Those are the three main factors. Of course, we try to do our best to get them home as soon as possible – and I’m talking not only about Bongo, but also my colleagues from across the sector. Those people are trying to do their best work in the fastest way possible. When starting a repatriation, we’ll be trying to explain the formalities to the families, step by step. Beyond that, you have to get plenty of permissions, and you have to find the right flight. As far as religion goes – if, say, we are trying to repatriate a person who is a Muslim, we will try to give them the fastest delivery possible, because they prefer to have the body delivered within 24 hours after death. But usually that is not possible – usually it will take up to three days to arrange things. And sometimes, it’s hard to explain to the families that there are procedures that need to be done, because they’re focused on their loved ones rather than the process.
When starting a repatriation, we’ll be trying to explain the formalities to the families, step by step
There were a lot of challenges for funeral repatriation services during the Covid-19 pandemic. Have things largely returned to normal now?
In the last 12 months – from my point of view – we have had quite a normal situation. The pandemic was difficult, of course, at the beginning – but later on, we developed some new solutions. For low-cost ceremonies, we now use more IT solutions, such as online transmissions from the funeral ceremonies. For repatriations, there are many more options for documents to be signed using ‘digital signatures’ – and that’s fantastic because it’s much easier and much faster to repatriate the body or ashes of the deceased. Pre-pandemic, you had to visit the various consulates in person. Now – not always, but from time to time – we are able to skip the consulate and send documents by email or digital platform.
You’ve managed Bongo since 2007. How has your company and the industry as a whole changed over the past 15 years?
We took over the company from the state that year – because Bongo was a state-owned company that was established in 1958. Hence the name, which stands for ‘Biuro Opieki Nad Grobami Obcokrajowców’ (Governmental Office for the Care of Foreign Graves). When we took over the company, it had less than 200 cases; now, we have more like 600 or 700 cases per year. The cases are a mix – not only Polish citizens; we also do repatriations for people from the central European countries – for German citizens, Czechs, Ukrainians, a lot. Also, since 2007 we have noticed that there are more cremations rather than repatriations of bodies. We started with maybe 20 per cent of cases being cremation; now, it’s up to about 40 to 60 [per cent].
Pre-pandemic, you had to visit in person the various consulates. Now … we are able to skip the consulate and send documents by email or digital platform
As a Polish company, has the war in neighbouring Ukraine had any effect on your ability to carry out repatriation work?
We have had cases of people who lost their lives during the war in Ukraine, and we did repatriations on those people. This includes people from New Zealand, Australia, from the United States, and we do those sorts of repatriations for some of our partners – such as consulates and embassies. We have also had journalists who have passed away over there, including one from Agence France-Presse. Additionally, there are other problems because of the war: we cannot send any deceased by plane to or from Ukraine; everything is by road. This is a bit difficult and we have to solve these problems. And of course, we have to remember that Russians are dying also – if we have that kind of case, we try to deliver the body by road via Belarus or Kaliningrad. There is also the problem of when we have cases of Kazakh people, or people from Tajikistan or Moldova, because there are fewer flights in that direction, and fewer possibilities of connections – and those flights are much more expensive. And when things are more expensive, the families have more problems trying to pay.