ABU DHABI // Few people are prepared to deal with a death in the family. Nial Farrell found that he was no exception, when a relative died suddenly in Dubai. What really caught him unawares, however, was the maze of bureaucracy his family had to negotiate to repatriate the body of his brother's father-in-law to Ireland. After the death, the family shuttled between Abu Dhabi and Dubai for two days to gather the required paperwork. They stopped at various government offices, the hospital, the mortuary and the Irish embassy to make sure that they had all the necessary documents.
"The number of visits was frustrating," Mr Farrell said. "We had to go to several places twice." On the first day, the Farrells had to visit a police station to explain what they knew about the death; then go on to the head office of the Ministry of Health at Al Baraha Hospital in Dubai to pick up the death certificate; and drive to the Irish embassy in Abu Dhabi to cancel the man's passport. "At different stages, there were loads of photo-copies," Mr Farrell said. Each agency required six or seven sets, he said.
The next day, the family went to the Ministry of Interior to cancel the man's visa and to a shop to get official documents typed in Arabic. Afterwards, they visited the embalming unit at the Medical Fitness Centre in the Sonapur district of Dubai to verify that they would receive the body. Then it was back to the hospital to make sure it would release the body to the embalming unit. The embalming took 40 minutes and the family was allowed to view and identify the deceased. Then the body was put in a coffin. "It was an opportunity to say goodbye," Mr Farrell said. The body was transported by ambulance to the airport, where it was X-rayed by the police who verified all the paperwork.
The family paid Dh1,000 (US$270) for the coffin and embalming, and Dh8,000 for cargo charges. "That was the surprising thing," said Mr Farrell, who found the repatriation charges by the airline to be high. There are agencies that, for a fee (usually between Dh3,000 and Dh5,000), will take care of the paperwork, but Mr Farrell said that he and his family determined that an agency would take as much time as a knowledgeable family.
Mr Farrell said he was lucky to receive a set of guidelines from the British embassy that noted what documentation was required to navigate the process. "It is obvious that those who are working with this do it with great kindness," he said. However, he feels "there should be one integrated office to deal with all the paperwork of the police, ministries and hospital". Most foreign embassies provide guidelines that are available to expatriates in need.
Valley of Love, a Dubai organisation, helped to repatriate 80 bodies from across the UAE last year. Ideally, a worker's company would cover all costs, but complications arise. Valley of Love volunteers look to the community for assistance when an expatriate dies alone. CP Mathew, the founder of the organisation, said small businesses such as tailoring shops or cafes were often unable to cover repatriation costs. Valley of Love is often approached to help with fees, as well as the complex paperwork. Mr Mathew believes that "one office in every emirate for documentation" would ease the strain on grieving families.
If a person has died of a contagious disease, the body cannot be repatriated. In that case, cremation or local burial is arranged. There is no charge to transport cremated remains, Mr Mathew said, and a Muslim burial is free. Some south Asian countries subsidise the transportation of a body. Pakistan International Airlines waives its cargo fee, and offers a pair of tickets to accompanying family members. "It is a very nice service," Mr Mathew said.
To send a body to Bangladesh costs about Dh2,000; to India, about Dh1,200. A body that is not claimed within a month of arriving at the mortuary in Abu Dhabi is buried locally after the public prosecutor is informed that there was no identification on the body and no one has come forward to identify it. The mortuary, at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC), waits to receive a letter from the public prosecutor allowing the body to be buried.
"This is a new policy. An unknown body, we deal as a Muslim," said Dr Adnan Abbas, the head of the mortuary services at SKMC. Expatriates are not allowed to be buried in the UAE without permission from their embassy and a representative of the family. The SKMC mortuary receives up to 180 bodies a month; in Al Ain, the number is half that. In Al Gharbia, the mortuary sees about 20 each month. Thirty per cent of all bodies are those of labourers.
Dr Abbas said the SKMC mortuary was open around the clock and handed out death certificates at all hours. In the past three-and-a-half years, he has seen an increase in the number of bodies through the mortuary's doors, which he attributes to the steady rise in the population. "The only place for the issuance of a death certificate is here," he said, referring to the capital. "This is the only place for storage and for autopsy."
He said a death certificate was essential and served purposes other than aiding repatriation. From accessing bank documents to helping relatives get leave from their jobs, a death certificate also allows a family to make flight and cargo arrangements. Fixed plans help the mortuary wash, embalm and prepare the body six hours before departure. "We receive all nationalities," said Dr Abbas. "We can observe the practises for all religions, universally."
While some bodies are inspected by embassy officials, depending on the destination, most of the time utmost care is taken to ensure that the bodies are undisturbed and arrive in a proper condition for a funeral.
"Our mission is to send it to the family," said Dr Abbas.
Any death that occurs outside a public hospital, including road and workplace accidents, death at home and death in an emergency room will normally proceed as follows: The body is transferred to the emergency ward of Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi with a letter from the police. Doctors determine the cause of death and issue a death notification letter. The body is transferred to the mortuary and stays there until a family member, company representative or embassy official makes an identification. A forensic specialist with the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi examines the body and writes a report declaring the cause of death. If foul play is suspected, the report goes to the police. They forward the file to the public prosecutor, who decides whether to release the body or demand a post-mortem. If the prosecutor requests a post-mortem, a judicial department pathologist visits the mortuary and conducts the procedure. The public prosecutor informs the police when a body is ready for release. Two letters are sent to the death section at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City. The first letter authorises the release and repatriation of the body and the second notes the place of death. * Suryatapa Bhattacharya