By Daniel Canty
The repatriation of corpses represents a unique challenge to the air cargo industry. Vivian Albertyn, partner and founder of Middle East Funeral Services, reveals how the industry helps in an hour of need.
The air cargo industry is synonymous with trade, express delivery and the globalisation of the world economy. What is easily forgotten, given this backdrop, is that the business provides a vital and often unsung service to families all around the globe when the worst happens. As expatriate populations bloom all over the Middle East, the regional demand for the repatriation of bodies is surging. The logistical and emotional burden placed on families unfamiliar with the complexities involved can cause great distress at a time when the unfamiliar is all too real anyway. To alleviate some of this suffering and streamline the repatriation process, Vivian Albertyn has established Middle East Funeral Services, a specialist firm dealing with overseas repatriation by air cargo.
"The process can be bewildering at times, and for people struggling to come to terms with a death in the family, the lack of support can be extremely distressing," explains Albertyn. "Through conversations with staff from the Maktoum Hospital, I know that they try to offer all the support they can, but the doctors and nurses don't have the resources to deal with this," he adds.
The transportation of a cadaver by airplane represents very specific challenges and processes that the uninitiated would find somewhat confusing. For example, most people's knowledge of embalming probably stretches to schoolbooks covering ancient Egyptian practices. However, International Air Transportation Association (IATA) rules, and most national laws, state that if moved from one country to another, a body needs an embalming certificate.
The purpose of modern embalming is not necessarily to preserve the body over an extended period of time, rather to temporarily prevent decomposition and restore a natural appearance for viewing a body after death. A mixture of chemicals comprising a variety of preservatives, sanitising, and disinfectant agents and additives are employed, and major organs are removed or drained of liquids. This process, if performed successfully should enable the body to be viewed at the destination and eventual funeral service.
Essentially the embalming process is the only physical work that needs to be carried out, however, in cases where there is a danger of infection, such as the presence of communicable diseases, embalming cannot be performed, which means repatriation is not possible. In instances such as this the body must be buried or cremated in the country where the death occurs.
In terms of specialised cargo arrangements, the coffin can be of any type, with a minimum thickness of 20mm. Obviously, the thickness and type of wood, and the size of the coffin will have a direct impact on the weight of the cargo, and thus the cost of sending the freight. "To this end a balance has to be struck between finding a material that is suitably dignified for the purpose, but also meets the budgetary requirements of the family," explains Albertyn. "Whilst plywood boxes offer sufficient strength and are very light by comparison, the likelihood is that a grieving family would rather pay more and purchase a heavier, more elegant box, as befitting the purpose."
Human remains, except those that are cremated, must be contained within a hermetically sealed inner coffin of zinc inside the wooden coffin. Zinc is most commonly used because the properties are ideal for the purpose. The metal is light and easily soldered or glued for sealing, also it is plentiful and fairly economical. Though IATA permits the transport and use of lead lined coffins, the material is banned by many airlines and airports because it is not conducive to x-ray, and standard cargo scanning legislation implemented throughout much of the western world, and the EU prohibits its use.
Whilst every effort is taken to ensure delicate handling, and considerations made for the sensitive nature of the cargo, security scanning is nevertheless essential. Just like any other cargo, there is a possibility that the freight could be used as a cover for the movement of narcotics or illicit trade. To this end scanning is undertaken to ensure both the contents and container are exactly what they say they are.
"Of course this is thorough but it is also carried out by the airport authorities in a swift and appropriate manner. I've accompanied boxes through the process, so I understand what they need to do and how everything is carried out," says Albertyn.
IATA guidelines also stipulate that the wooden coffin should be protected from damage by outer packing and covered by canvas or tarpaulin so that the nature of the contents is not outwardly apparent. With regards to handling the cargo, the carriage of human remains is subject to certain conditions. Non-cremated human remains should not be loaded in close proximity to foodstuffs, and the pilot-in command has to be informed of the cargo specifically by type in this instance. The IATA airport-handling manual also notes that ‘there appears to be no scientific or technical reason why human remains and live animals should be segregated in aircraft cargo compartments. However, it may be ethical for cultural reasons to separate them'. In practice this is adhered to in almost all cases. "To my knowledge coffins are never shipped with live animals in the cargo hold," says Albertyn.
"Airlines and the staff I deal with are extremely accommodating and handle themselves in an extremely professional and respectful manner when dealing with these cargoes," he adds.
The embalming process doesn't entirely negate the need for temperature control, so the process of moving the cargo is completed as quickly as possible. "I'm never kept waiting around when I get to the airport, I'm given first priority over other cargo. They scan the container and it goes through to temperature controlled holds first," explains Albertyn.
The only time Albertyn expresses dismay is that for almost all other types of cargo, customers benefit from loyalty schemes with airlines. "For some unknown reason this cannot, or will not be extended to the shipment of bodies. It's a real shame because in circumstances where a client really can't afford the shipment costs it would be nice to use those loyalty points to do the journey for free, or even from a general business point of view, I could pass those reductions on to my clients." Indeed, based on current average costs, ten repatriations a week would equate to nearly US$30,000, a substantial amount of money to spend with a carrier.
The repatriation service obviously involves a degree of specialist paperwork and red tape before the cargo can be transported. Just some of the essential papers include obtaining the death certificate, registration of the death with the Ministry of Health, cancellation of the passport at the respective embassy or consulate, cancellation of the work visa at the Immigration Department, obtaining a release letter from the police, hospital confirmation that there is an absence of infectious disease, and the embalming certificate. All of this has to be copied seven times and presented to the police CID department at the airport. If everything is in order and an airway bill can be issued from the airline, from which point the airline or cargo handler take care of everything else.
"The first time I went through all the paper processes and red tape I thought it was overwhelming and excessive, on reflection, I can now see why it has to work the way it does. Now that I'm used to the system I can whiz through the process in under two days and to be honest with you, it could be more difficult. It seems that there is a mass of red tape if you are unfamiliar with the process, but when you become fluent with the system it's not really that bad," says Albertyn.
With regard to any air cargo, it is important that the goods reach the correct destination in a timely fashion, however, with cargo of such a personal nature it is absolutely essential. In August 2006 the grieving family of a male expatriate working in the Gulf were horrified to find at the funeral ceremony in India that the casket delivered contained the body of an unidentified female.
This incident happened during repatriation from Iran, but Albertyn is confident that the stops and checks in place in the UAE make such a mix up near impossible. "If all of the procedures are followed correctly, which they have to be to obtain the release papers from the police at the departure airport, it is almost inconceivable this could happen here."
He is confident that this really is where the heart of the value added element of the business lies. "What many people have encountered when they try to undertake the process without professional help, is that if just one of those forms isn't stamped, or something seemingly unimportant is overlooked then the whole process grinds to a halt, which is obviously very distressing," explains Albertyn.
"Also, there are things that as a professional service you can protect people from. For example, there will be other corpses present at the embalming centre, and ultimately it's not essential for relatives or loved ones to see that process, in fact it's very much preferable that they don't."
In terms of developing a viable business model, Albertyn explains a great deal of research was necessary to understand the nature and type of logistical demand that Middle East Funeral Services would experience. "I've contacted embassies and consulates to build a database of my own. The official statistics from the government ministries were useful to a point, but beyond everyone working here on a full visa, there are in fact a lot of people here on visit visas too which were not represented in the that data."
The projections he has come up with seem an accurate reflection of modern Dubai, with nationalities, and subsequent demand balanced in a fairly predictable model. "As a rule of thumb we work on the basic principal that four people die here every day, and that would be typified by two from the subcontinent, one western expatriate and one local person," he explains.
The high cost of repatriations is obviously directly related to the special nature of handling and exemplary treatment the cargo receives. However, the airlines operating out of Dubai have shown an impressive capacity to act compassionately. Emirates SkyCargo offers half price repatriations to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Although Indian Airlines does charge as standard, if permission is granted from the Indian Consulate to repatriate for free, the charge is waived.
"Our goal has always been to eliminate any and all additional stress caused by the death of a loved one overseas so the family can focus on the emotional recovery instead. With the continued cooperation of the air cargo industry, I feel we are in a position to deliver exactly that service," says Albertyn. The compassionate treatment of cargo, for obvious reasons goes, largely unobserved, but it seems clear that final departures are being treated with the utmost respect by Middle Eastern cargo operators.