Yesterday, actor James Gandolfini died at age 51 in Italy, apparently from a heart attack. (Gandolfini is best known for his role as Tony Soprano in the HBO hit series "The Sopranos," as well as roles in films such as "True Romance," "In the Loop," and "Zero Dark Thirty.") According to TMZ, Gandolfini was in Italy to attend the 59th Taormina Film Festival in Sicily. Presumably, his body will be brought back to the United States for a funeral here. So what happens now?
Every year, hundreds of American citizens die while traveling abroad. In fact, in 2012, 833 Americans died abroad of non-natural causes. (There are no statistics on how many Americans traveling abroad died of natural causes.) So what happens when an American dies outside of the country? We've broken down the order of operations for how to logistically handle a death abroad.
The Bureau of Consular Affairs assists the next-of-kin to convey instructions to the appropriate offices within the foreign country, and provides information to the family on how to transmit the necessary private funds to cover the costs overseas. Upon issuance of a local death certificate, the nearest embassy or consulate may prepare a Consular Report of the Death of an American Abroad. Copies of that report are provided to the next-of-kin or legal representative and may be used in U.S. courts to settle estate matters.
2. Decide if you need to travel to the country. Depending on the laws of the place the person died, there may be rules around who can claim the body, make decisions about transporting the body, and sign the necessary paperwork to get the person back to the US. The local consulate or embassy should be able to help you determine if you should go abroad, and may be able to tell you which airport you should fly into and how to get to the consulate or embassy once you arrive. Be aware that the US government will not help you pay for the cost of a plane ticket, or any other expenses related to collecting the body.
2.a. Hire a translator. If you do decide to travel to the country where the person died, you'll want to hire a translator who can help you communicate with the variety of foreign professionals you'll need to work with. Depending on the circumstances of the death, there may need to be an autopsy; you'll likely have to work with a local funeral home in that country; and there will probably be lots of foreign paperwork that you'll need to sign. Having a translator who can help you navigate these areas (hospital, funeral, legal) will make the whole process easier.
3. Find a US funeral home. The foreign consulate or embassy will help you coordinate on the foreign side of things, but you'll need a funeral home that you can work with in the US. It's a good idea to work with a funeral home that has experience in dealing with the country where the person died, since they'll already understand the process of that particular country. To figure out if the funeral home has the right experience, just call around and ask. Also, it's a good idea to make sure that the funeral home can accommodate any time differences that may be involved. As most funeral homes operate on a 9-5 schedule, they may be closed when the foreign funeral home or consulate needs to be in touch with them, so make sure that the funeral home you hire is willing to work on a nontraditional schedule for you.
4. Gather the person's belongings. Whether you go to the country or not, you'll probably want to make arrangements to have the person's personal belongings collected and brought back to the US. This may include everything from the person's passport and any relevant visas (which may be legally necessary in order to transport the body) to the person's clothes, accessories, and other items that he or she was traveling with.
5. Ask your network for help. When someone dies abroad, there can be an overwhelming amount of bureaucracy. Whether you have a friend who can speak the language of the country you're dealing with, or you have a friend whose uncle's best friend's son is in the State Department, or your aunt's hairdresser's son is a travel agent who can get you a good deal on a last-minute international flight, reaching out to your network for support can provide a variety of different types of support. You don't have to handle everything on your own.