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Repatriation of Human Remains by Air…Securely: welcome to the murky world of

The repatriation of human remains by air is, without doubt, a very sensitive matter. Practical, emotional and physical challenges are aplenty, both in respect of dealing with the family of the deceased and, at the same time, in taking steps to ensure that all regulatory requirements are met, including those pertaining to aviation security and environmental health. Tim Roberston provides us with a glimpse into the work of Cryptair, consultants in aviation security and exhumations.

A sudden death away from home can place the deceased relatives tasked with arranging the repatriation of a loved one at an immediate disadvantage. Depending where the death has occurred, regulations and local customs can make it a fraught and lengthy experience, even for experienced funeral directors, let alone those grieving a loss. This can be especially problematic with certain faith groups, as in the case of Islam and Judaism, where there is a religious requirement to inter the body as soon as possible after death – often the same day or within 24 hours.

Sometimes it may seem to the family that little is being done because the bureaucratic processes, in many far-flung countries, takes so long. Trying to liaise with a funeral director in a foreign land is often difficult, and overseas consulates and other diplomatic representations can only provide a limited level of advice and help – fairly typically very limited.

As well as occasionally assisting the work of coroners and facilitating other exhumations, along with their partners at Phoenix Exhumations, Cryptair has also started to get involved in something much more unusual; they have become specialists in the exhumation of long-buried, or otherwise interred, remains from the United Kingdom to a final resting place elsewhere in the country or, more typically, abroad. This is a process usually involving air carriage.

Long-Deceased Exhumations and Repatriations
Repatriation abroad of a long-deceased individual, or individuals, is no less sensitive an issue than handling that of somebody who has recently passed away. To start with there are a great many UK regulations to comply with, including aviation security requirements as set out by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Then there are the more practical challenges. Where interments have taken place in vaults, catacombs, crypts and mausoleums, the requirement that bodies be buried in triple-lined lead coffins means that human remains can vary considerably in form – from total tissue preservation to mere skeletal remains. These triple-lined coffins are very heavy and, depending on factors such as the condition of the corpse or the ornamentation of the original coffin, if well preserved, the total weight can be in excess of a quarter of a tonne.

This article is not concerned with the repatriation of cremated remains. These can more readily travel as cargo or, subject to advance arrangements, may even be able to accompany a passenger as carry-on baggage on certain airlines, subject to the appropriate screening facilities being available. It is not quite as simple when one deals with a corpse.

First of all, exhumation itself is not a task undertaken lightly. There has to be a justifiable reason to disturb human remains, and this extends to all earth burials, as well as interments in catacombs, vaults and mausoleums. As it happens, it also extends to cremated remains, where these have been buried in the ground or deposited elsewhere. Cryptair will advise families at the outset whether it thinks the request for repatriation is valid and likely to find favour with the Ministry of Justice before it takes the matter forward with a face-to-face meeting. It is only when they are satisfied that the request is both justified, and has the support of all the relevant nearest relatives (rather than it being the whim of a single family member), that Cryptair approaches the Ministry of Justice for an initial discussion.

Licence to Exhume
The Ministry decides whether to grant permission for an exhumation licence and, until that licence is received, no work may start on site beyond observation of, typically, the state of the grave or, for vaults and mausoleums, the stability of the structure and likely access and egress routes once the remains are ready for removal. Many old vaults and mausoleums can be dangerously unstable and sometimes entry is simply too dangerous because of partial collapse or instability of the structure. Additionally, if there are objections from within a family, then the whole process can fail.

Recently, a family came to Cryptair wanting 100-year-old remains to be removed from a family vault in West London and then repatriated to South America. All was going well until a distant relative of the family, who had initially supported the bid for repatriation, changed his mind. The Ministry of Justice decided, quite reasonably, that they would not be able to issue a licence with a family objection lodged. The proposed repatriation did not, therefore, take place despite the wishes of the rest of the family. Similarly, a family who had requested Cryptair carry out an assessment of a vault and the two coffins therein – which involved a fair amount of labour and heavy lifting equipment – later decided not to proceed because of the costs involved.

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