Cruise Ship Deaths: What Happens Next? Step by Step Process Guide


If you are considering a cruise you may be wondering what happens when a person dies. It’s estimated that around 200 people per year die on cruises although, in reality, this number is probably higher. The majority of onboard deaths are from natural causes but there are some accidents, suicides, and even murders.

What Happens With Somebody Dies on a Cruise?

When a passenger dies on a cruise the body will be stored in an onboard morgue until the ship reaches an appropriate port where the body can be disembarked, from there the body will be flown home. The family will be informed and if the cause of death is unknown the death will be investigated by local authorities. 

Cruise ships are well equipped to deal with death. Crew members in a variety of roles are trained to deal not only with the logistics of disembarking a body but also supporting the fellow passengers and family members.

Contacting Family

The first thing that will happen when somebody dies on a cruise is that the family will be informed. Firstly the fellow passengers traveling with the guest and then the family members at home.

It’s easy for the cruise line to know to find out which passengers the guest was cruising with as they’ll be on the same booking. It’s a little more difficult for them to find out who to inform at home. When you book the cruise you’ll usually fill out emergency contact details and these will be used.

If the passenger was cruising with fellow guests it may be left to the fellow guests to inform family members at home if they want to, this depends on the situation and passengers involved.

red roses on bench at funeral

Some cruise lines will have ministers or specially trained people on board who are able to talk to the family and try to help wherever possible. Some cruise ships even have small chapels for those who want to use it.

There aren’t usually specially trained councilors but there are crew members ready to help in the situation of an onboard death.

Special Codes

On a cruise ship, you’ll find special codes for everything. The special codes are designed so that they can be announced over the tannoy without guests knowing what they mean and getting worried. On most cruise lines you’ll find the same emergency codes but some do vary depending on the cruise line.

I was invited to view the bridge on a recent cruise, there was a book which included all of the codes and the officers talked to us a little about how they use these codes. They said that the codes are incredibly specific and they even have special code words for vomit or diarrhea in case somebody is unwell around the ship or in the pools.

Some common codes are below:

CodeMeaning
AlphaMedical Emergency on Royal Caribbean Ships or Fire Emergency Onboard Carnival Ships
BravoFire Emergency on Most Cruise Lines
CharlieSecurity Threat
DeltaBio Hazard on Some Cruise Lines
EchoCollision on Royal Caribbean Ships
OscarMan Overboard on Royal Caribbean Ships

The code for a serious medical problem is ‘operation bright start’ and the code for death is ‘operation rising star’. This is the same on almost all cruise lines and the code itself seems to make sense given the subject matter.

Body Storage

On all cruise ships, you will find a morgue of some sort. The size does vary by cruise line but the majority are able to hold at least 3 bodies. Some larger ships can hold many more.

That said, it is never the intention of the cruise line to hold bodies for a long time. The cruise line will usually unload the body as soon as possible and then it will be flown home.

Some cruises do have many sea days and repositioning cruises such as transatlantic or transpacific cruises can often have up to a week at sea. Cruise lines have to be prepared to deal with this situation. Repositioning cruises are some of my favorites, they’re cheap, interesting and the experience onboard is quite different from other cruises. To learn more about repositioning cruises, including why you should take one, check out this post: 7 Benefits of Repositioning Cruises (Tried & Tested)

Ice Cream Rumors

There is a rumor which has been circulating for decades about deaths and ice cream on cruises.

The rumor says that if the cruise ship has too many dead bodies to fit in the morgue they’ll use the ice cream freezer and give out ice cream to guests onboard. How true this is, I’m not sure. I’m sure it isn’t protocol to keep bodies in the ice cream freezer but without any other options, I could see it happening. It’s better than leaving a body un-refrigerated.

ice cream scoop

Travel Insurance

It is SO important that you buy travel insurance before your cruise. You may feel as though it isn’t necessary if you’re not going far from home, for example cruising from Miami to the Caribbean but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

You could be left with hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars of debt if something did go wrong.

Bruce Campbell

An example of where not having travel insurance was a HUGE problem was that of Bruce Campbell.

Bruce suffered a stroke when he was cruising on the Carnival Sunshine. He was taken to a hospital in the Bahamas but they were not able to treat him there so he needed to be flown back to the US. He didn’t have travel insurance so faced paying out of pocket for all expenses. Bruce and his wife didn’t have the required funds and amazingly an anonymous donor donated $20,000 to fly him home.

To learn more about this case and other cruise murders, suicides and accidents, check out this post:

Cruise Ship Deaths – Annual Statistics, Causes and Real Examples

It’s incredibly expensive to fly a body home and medical fees on land can add up very quickly. Don’t risk it. Get travel insurance.

I use MoneySupermarket (affiliate link) when I buy travel insurance as it’s so easy to use. You enter your details and receive lots of quotes back, I usually pick one which is cheap, but not toooo cheap.

How Travel Insurance Helps

If travel insurance has been purchased then the cruise line/passenger in question would be in touch with their insurance provider. Between all the involved parties a plan would be made.

The insurance would usually pay for things like medical care, expenses gained by the fellow passenger disembarking with the person/body, and possible repatriation. In some circumstances, these things must be paid for upfront then claimed back on the travel insurance.

travel insurance claim form

Investigation

If the cruise is from the US and there is suspected foul play the FBI will be called in to investigate. If the cruise is in another country the appropriate team will be called in to investigate.

The team will conduct their interviews and investigations similarly to how they would on land, they may look at CCTV, question other passengers, and analyze the crime scene. The seriousness of the crime and if there is a person responsible all affect how fast it will be investigated.

In the case of a suspected murder, the cruise team onboard would be able to hold the suspected person until local authorities arrive. Cruise ships do have small brigs (prisons) for situations like this.

It may also be the case that the cruise ship has to miss port spots or that the ship is held and guests are unable to disembark.

investigation FBI

Disembarking The Body

The disembarkation of the body usually happens as early in the morning as possible so that as few guests as possible see.

If the death was from natural causes or the situation has been investigated the body will be disembarked at the nearest port. It’s normally required that a person disembarks with the body and if this does happen a passport is needed for everybody who leaves the ship.

It is possible to take some cruises from the US without a passport but in an event like this, you would need a passport to disembark at the port and fly home. If you didn’t have one you’d have to get an emergency passport and this definitely isn’t a stress needed at this time. It may also be hard to get an emergency passport in some ports, especially those which are smaller and may not necessarily have forms and documents in English.

Death Certificates

Whichever port country agrees to take the body they will be able to assign the death certificate. This is needed for the body to be flown back home. Not all ports are equipped to deal with a body and producing a death certificate so in this case the body may be kept on board until the next port. It isn’t abnormal for Caribbean cruises to keep bodies until they return to the US providing that it isn’t too many days away.

Reporting The Death

Regardless of the location of the cruise, the death has to be reported to local authorities. When the cruise ship returns to the disembarkation port they need to be able to explain about the death of the passenger and provide evidence of what has happened to them.

If the cruise is from the US this will be reported to the US coast guard. Most countries have a similar process in place.

To Conclude:

When a passenger passes away onboard a cruise their family will be informed. The body will be stored in the onboard morgue until it is disembarked at an appropriate port. If foul play is suspected the death will be investigated in greater detail.

To learn more about cruise ship deaths, check out this post next: Cruise Ship Deaths. Annual Statistics, Causes and Real Examples

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Emma Le Teace

Hey! I'm Emma. A cruise blogger, YouTuber and founder of the 'Cruising Isn't Just For Old People' Facebook community and website. You can learn more here: About Me.

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