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Operation Rising Star: What happens if somebody dies on a cruise ship?

Cruise ships carry thousands of passengers for sometimes weeks at a time. With so many people on one ship, it’s only natural that, sometimes, one of them will die.

The big question is, how does the ship deal with the death? Where does the body go? Who looks after the loved ones?

As such massive operations, it should come as no surprise that cruise ships have strict procedures when it comes to death at sea.

First, let’s address the question of how many people die. The statistics show that around 200 passengers die on a cruise ship every year. This might sound like a large number, but when you consider the sheer number of people travelling on cruises every year, it really isn’t so many. Plus, we need to consider that the majority of these are part of the older cruising demographic and pass away from natural causes.

Operation Rising Star

Avid cruisers will already have picked up some of the cruise ship jargon from over the intercoms. Two of the less common announcements are Operation Bright Star and the far more ominous Operation Rising Star. The first is alerting crew that there is a severe medical emergency, while Operation Rising Star tells crew that the passenger in question has passed away. Passengers won’t receive a formal statement about the death, so you may go through a whole cruise blissfully oblivious to any fatalities.

Where does the body go?

Amongst the many things cruise ships are required to carry (life boats, life jackets and so on) are body bags. They will also have a small morgue, a chilled room, with larger ships having capacity for up to 10 bodies in separate refrigerated units. When the ship arrives at the next port, the body is unloaded discreetly from a separate exit. However, this depends on whether the country of port is willing to accept the deceased and issue a death certificate. Some smaller Asian and African ports simply refuse to accept human remains from a ship.

For the loved ones, this can be the beginning of a complicated process to get the body home. Neither the consulate or cruise ship covers the costs of getting the body home – this comes down to the loved ones or the insurer. If the death occurs on a short-cruise, the body is usually stored until the end of the cruise, making things easier for the loved ones.

One thing is for sure – the body cannot be cremated at sea. Ships do not have crematoriums.

Who looks after the loved ones?

All cruise lines will assign somebody from the Guest Care Team to support the friends and family. Many of the leading cruise lines also have employees who are trained to provide support for those left behind, including emotional and logistical help. They can guide the loved ones through the details and paperwork involved in repatriating the body, and may stay with them at port until they can go home.

Rest assured that all cruise ships have doctors and medical facilities. But it never hurts to have comprehensive travel insurance to cover you and your family should the unthinkable happen.

Bon voyage!