The past few years have been turbulent for industries worldwide. Everyone has been impacted by Covid-19, while other global issues continue to cause problems. For businesses specialising in funeral repatriations, it’s been no different.
Cancelled flights, closed borders and strict regulations made the international movement of mortal remains very complicated. Funeral providers and repatriation experts were faced with huge practical and financial hurdles. Families suffered greatly, fighting to bring deceased loved ones home – incurring large bills when doing so.
“During the pandemic, there were disruptions to all international flight schedules, including cancellations. This brought about extreme challenges,” explained a spokesperson for Flying Home, an international repatriation specialist based in Singapore. “The rerouting of flights meant extra charges, and families were forced to cremate their departed loved ones or pay premium rates for repatriation.”
Restrictions easing, but not everywhere
Sam Tester, Operations Director at UK-based repatriation specialist Homelands International, said: “Many Covid-19 restrictions placed on the repatriation of mortal remains cases have eased, returning to where they were pre-pandemic. However, this is not on a global basis.
“We have only just seen some leniency on restrictions in China, as well as other countries which still maintained strict rules from the pandemic. This has made repatriation challenging, as people often cannot understand why we can repatriate smoothly from one location but not another.”
Fiona Greenwood, Operations Director at UK repatriation specialist Rowland Brothers, said vigilance was key: “Health authorities have relaxed rules put in place for Covid-19. But if there is an increase in infections in a particular country and lockdowns are reintroduced, we must continue to check health regulations imposed by the local authorities for exit and entry in the countries we are repatriating to and from. Any last-minute changes could restrict arrangements.”
However, she added that: “There is also more understanding of the risks, and we have seen overall reductions in numbers of deaths with a cause recorded as Covid-19.”
Although many restrictions have eased, there can still be problems organising repatriation when the deceased was ‘Covid-positive’.
We have only just seen some leniency on restrictions in China, as well as other countries which still maintained strict rules from the pandemic
“If they were Covid-negative, then most repatriation cases can proceed without issues,” said Tester. “However, there are still a lot of countries where rules remain strict for those who have died with Covid-19.” In many parts of Central and South America, embalming is prohibited in Covid-positive cases, and the body must be cremated locally, he explained. This can be upsetting for families wanting to bury their loved ones in their home countries.
Sometimes the problem comes from the receiving country, as entry is denied unless a Free From Infection (FFI) certificate is presented. When this can’t be obtained, Greenwood said, ‘the only option for repatriation may be a local cremation and repatriation of cremated remains’. However, numbers of these cases are currently low.
She pointed out that ‘the need for FFIs has been in place for years’, – even before Covid-19 – ‘and the challenges of managing repatriations without an FFI have not changed’. She concluded that the worst outcome is that repatriation cannot take place and alternate arrangements must be made.
Matthew Connors is Director of Operations at US-based Bergen Funeral Services, providers that also specialise in international funeral shipping. He highlighted China and Liberia as two countries that have made transportation of Covid-positive remains extremely difficult.
Regulations can vary even within the same country; for example Ecuador, where the capital city of Quito won’t accept Covid-positive remains, but the city of Guayaquil will.
“Some countries are requiring negative PCR tests and/or additional paperwork for a Covid-positive case,” said Connors. “One issue we have been experiencing is that government offices are open fewer hours per day, affecting the speed of some paperwork in certain states. These are just examples of the constant issues and ever-changing landscape that we deal with on a daily basis.”
Although providers have had to overcome many obstacles, it seems there is light at the end of the tunnel. “We are seeing more countries finding ways to safely allow repatriation with positive cases, which is a welcome change for both operators and affected families,” said Tester.
“Here at Homeland International, we have been actively supporting members of our provider network with advice and support in negotiating with local governments and embalmers, as to how they can safely work with such cases. In turn, we hope this enables more countries to allow repatriation rather than local cremation, to help remove the difficult and distressing situations families are finding themselves in worldwide.”
“Hopefully things return to normal sooner rather than later, both for the bereaved families and repatriation companies,” concluded Flying Home.
Effects of war in Ukraine
“Any conflict in the world that impacts on airline activity creates challenges for repatriation specialists,” said Flying Home.
“A reduced number of aircraft flying means less cargo space available. It also leads to complicated routings, as the aircraft may not serve the country of origin or country of destination,” they explained.
“It is the duty of experienced international repatriation specialists, like Flying Home, to help families find best alternatives to bring departed loved ones home. This includes working with both air and ground transport providers to secure alternative options,” they added.
Connors explained how ground operations have helped Bergen Funeral Services meet client needs: “We have a large Ukrainian population here, so we have been sending the remains to Poland, and having them driven across the border into Ukraine.
“A really good contact on the ground in wartime is very important,” he added.
Tester also gave credit to ground operations: “The war in Ukraine has caused some challenges in the sector, mostly with regards to repatriations to and from both countries in question. We are still able to coordinate repatriations to and from Ukraine, and we owe a lot of respect and gratitude to our providers on the ground who continue to support Ukrainian families on a daily basis, from all over Europe.”
However, using ground transportation and more complex routes has caused a spike in repatriation costs.
“The price differs depending on where in Ukraine they need to go, so that is of course a factor for all clients and families we serve. Since we are flying into Poland, we also need to go to the Polish Embassy and obtain a transit permit and translations for all Ukraine cases. This has added some extra time and costs,” said Connors.
The financial impact of the war has been felt worldwide. Tester explained that increased fuel and energy prices have affected Homeland International: “Airline costs have risen and become more unstable since the war began, with some routes trebling in price. This in turn increases the amount that insurance and assistance companies are paying out on the repatriation of mortal remains.
“Another challenge is the price and availability of energy. In Germany last sommer, there were concerns that crematoria might not be able to continue operating, as the government weren't listed as essential energy users,” he said.
Connors also revealed how financial sanctions have impacted the organisation of repatriations with Russian clients, arguing that ‘the difficulty we face is down to financial sanctions and not the ability to physically repatriate’.
“The main issue is the suspension of our client accounts in Russia, meaning we are no longer able to support them with repatriations. Key relationships built over many years have been halted, and we do not know when this situation will change,” he continued.
Tester added: “We are also unable to support other clients where repatriation cases are from Russia, as we can’t make payments to our suppliers based within the country. Some companies have opened bank accounts in other countries, but even with these steps, we are still unable to conduct any work with them, due to sanctions.”
However, he added that Homeland International have assisted clients in Russia with details of providers to contact directly: “We do not do this anywhere else in the world – however, at the moment, it is the only way we can ensure that our insurance clients can support families with repatriations out of Russia. We will continue to monitor the global situation and endeavour to find solutions, but sanctions are likely to continue for a long time.”
In addition to financial and practical challenges, recent global issues have led to providers seeing different repatriation patterns.
Tester has noticed a change in volume and location of repatriations since the start of the war. This included significantly lower amounts of repatriations for Russian citizens, and the location of these cases has changed from mainly Mediterranean countries to the Middle East and Turkey.
Greenwood concurred: “Between Covid and the war in Ukraine we have seen a shift, compared to previous years, in the countries where we are repatriating from, with travellers remaining a little closer to their home nation.
Covid-19 was more disruptive than SARS, especially with flight availability and the reduced number of connecting destinations
“We also witnessed a sudden increase in case numbers as soon as countries around Europe lifted all of the Covid-19 entry restrictions,” she added.
Reduced air traffic and cancellations
Although many countries are taking a softer approach to the pandemic, the travel industry is still on the road to recovery. Air traffic continues to be lower than pre-pandemic levels and many airlines have reduced operating flights to certain destinations. Staff strikes have also caused further disruption, with airline cancellations and airports struggling to function.
This inevitably affects the timeline for repatriation, said Greenwood. “Not all airlines carry coffins on board, so when flights are cancelled or numbers are reduced, this can cause practical issues. Realistic expectations need to be set for families and clients, as in most cases they are unaware that not all airlines offer this service.”
Strategies for overcoming challenges
The specialists outlined communication, adaptability and forward thinking as key. Greenwood explained why communicating with clients and setting clear expectations is an important part of the repatriation process: “No two cases are identical. Some repatriations are straightforward, while others are more complex. Timelines vary depending on circumstances and location of death, plus final destination.
“As long as expectations are set along the way, clear and constant communication takes place. Our teams continue to have good problem-solving skills, challenges can be overcome and alternative routes are sourced, in order to achieve a successful repatriation,” she added.
On the financial side, she concluded that: “The need to continuously review the costs of repatriations and negotiate prices with all involved in the process is a non-ending job, and part of the cost-containment aspect and commitment to clients and families we serve.”
Connors agreed that setting expectations for clients is crucial, arguing that when dealing with complicated cases – like repatriating to Ukraine – it is important to make clients aware that extra steps in the process can cause delays.
Looking to the future, Flying Home highlighted the need for strategic planning and communication within the industry: “Flying Home learnt a lot during the previous Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic outbreak in 2002-2004. It allowed us to come up with emergency operating procedures for such situations.
“However, Covid-19 was more disruptive than SARS, especially with flight availability and the reduced number of connecting destinations. While internally we are prepared, we have no control of the external factors, such as airline flights,” they continued. “Repatriation specialists and airlines need to discuss and establish suitable working plans for any future pandemics. This can benefit all grieving families, wherever they are.”