Linda Wright, claims executive at UK P&I Club advises on what to do when death occurs at sea: “Death in a workplace environment is not any easy issue to broach but having a regimented, step-by-step plan in place to deal with such tragic circumstances is integral both from a humane and logistical standpoint, especially whilst at sea.
“When the unexpected death of a crewmember occurs at sea, action must be taken to preserve the body and show respect for the deceased and their families. Appropriate contact with family members by shoreside personnel is important and proper procedures for handling the body must be implemented, which is particularly critical if the ship is days or weeks from arriving at a port where the deceased can be disembarked.”
UK P&I Club has the following advice regarding handling of the body.
Don’t place the body in the freezer
“It is a common misconception that the best course of action to preserve a dead body is to freeze it. However, when a body is frozen, the tissues dehydrate and the body develops freezer burn, causing discolouration of the skin. This can make it problematic or even impossible for family members to recognise the deceased, heightening their distress at such a sensitive and emotional time.
“Furthermore, handling bodies when they are frozen can cause fracture, which will negatively influence the investigation and make the medicolegal interpretation of the examination results difficult. Also, if frozen, it takes approximately three days for the body to thaw before an autopsy can take place, and the body will decompose much more quickly than if it had been refrigerated.
Store the body in the refrigerator
“If it is anticipated that the body will not be stored on board for longer than two months, then the deceased should be placed in a body bag and stored at 4° Celsius/39° Fahrenheit in a refrigerator or cold store. This should effectively retain and preserve the body for post-mortem examination and for burial ashore by the family.
Family and crew concerns
“Following a death at sea, there will likely be emotional responses from family and fellow crewmembers. Once the family has been notified of the death, there may be religious or cultural customs requested. However, at sea, there are limited resources available to implement all requests for traditional death customs. If possible, it may be beneficial to have a trained grief counsellor visit with the crew upon arrival at a port, particularly in cases of suicide.
“Disposing of the body at sea is disfavoured, unless there is a specific request from the family in writing.
“Death at sea is difficult for crewmembers and family ashore. With Club and Member cooperation, UK P&I Club strives to accomplish a process to ensure a dignified death in the event of unexpected death of a crewmember.”