Repatriation of the Deceased: If You Die Overseas Die in The Netherlands

I did have a mental debate as to whether I should write about today’s topic. After listening to both sides for several days I’ve decided we’re all adults and can deal with grown up things.

Ever given a thought to what happens when someone who is living/ traveling /vacationing overseas dies away from home? It’s one of those things that lurks darkly at the back of our minds which we push away and promise ourselves we’ll think about it another time.

For many of us with spouses, children, family and friends who regularly travel the world perhaps it’s something we should at least be aware of and which I’ve touched on briefly before (Death of a Spouse Overseas and Death and The Expat)

Having friends who have just been through the ordeal of flying the body of their son home it’s something at the forefront of our minds. We had little idea of what was involved – dealing with insurance companies, undertakers in two countries (home and abroad), the legalities of a foreign country and people who go home at five o’clock. Even with the help of a consulate it can be gruelling navigating through the red tape.

When something like this happens we become acutely aware through news media or other people of how many other families are dealing with this situation, of bringing a loved one home.

Suddenly articles on this subject seemed to be everywhere but one in particular caught my eye as it was close to home, involving Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Martijn van Tol’s  ‘A First Rate Death in the Netherlands’

Schiphol is the only airport in the world with a mortuary and around 1450 bodies a year pass through on their way to their final resting place.

The facility is in the capable hands of Theo de Haardt, care manager of the mortuary, situated next to a runway within the sprawling airport complex. The department is accessible 24 hours a day and the deceased are cared for with respect and dignity, irrespective of who they are or where they’re from.

They arrive in de Haardt’s autopsy room for preparation for the flight home where he works alongside rabbis, imams or family members, depending on religious or cultural requirements. The body is embalmed ensuring the deceased arrives at the funeral destination in the best condition possible.

The staff are accommodating to all nationalities, faiths and cultures, with friends and families welcome to pay their respects at the facility,

‘It’s different every time,’ says de Haardt. ‘People from Indonesia often bring snacks and drinks. People from Suriname like a party with lots of singing. Nigerian families are immaculately dressed with sashes. Turkish people are extremely friendly and polite. Sometimes we have as many as a hundred people here but there’s never any problem.’

It seems the team are happy to accommodate anything required by a grieving family, a lock of hair, a poem in the casket. Whatever the family want,’… we can arrange that. 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Everything is possible.’

Everything is possible? That’s an expression not uttered often in the Netherlands.

Yet where de Haardt works so respectfully and diligently, thinking only of those placed in his safekeeping for transit home, is not really the Netherlands or any other country for that matter.

It’s that ethereal place removed from the world which goes on regardless and unseeing – those days following death when the clocks stand still, the earth wobbles on it’s axis and life for the families involved stops. Theo seems to have an intuitive understanding of what is important at these times of raw grief – for the deceased and their families.

I’m deeply touched by the humanity of this man. I’m warmed and comforted that should the very worst happen, here in the Netherlands we have one of the best facilities in the world to deal with it, led by a man who sees what he does as more than a job.

Thank you Theo.


About wordgeyser

Our anglo/american family used to live in four countries (USA, Canada, UK and the Netherlands) on two continents, separated by distance, time zones, circumstance and cultures. It has been a scary, enriching, challenging place to be. The only things guaranteed to get us through were a sense of humour and the amazing people met along the way. . . This year everything changed with a move for us from the Netherlands, – and a move along with us for our son and his wife from the UK – to Houston, Texas, the same city as our daughter. With our youngest in Vancouver, Canada, we are now all living on the same continent. How this happened, and more importantly why, will be the subject of this ongoing blog...
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8 Responses to Repatriation of the Deceased: If You Die Overseas Die in The Netherlands

  1. Jane says:

    Wow how interesting to know.

    And it is not a bad thing to talk to family about. Relations who regularly go to Australia have made it quite clear that they favor cremation there, should the worst happen, which will make decision making easier for the family.

    • wordgeyser says:

      This is such a tough subject which none of us like to think about. Even if you chose cremation, I’m sure every family would like the body of a loved one ‘home’ first. How else to have a meaningful funeral and say goodbye? A memorial service is not really the same. I was so pleased to read this article and know that somewhere the sanctity of life, and the leaving of it, is acknowledged and given such respect.

  2. I, too, salute Theo for treating those under his watch with dignity, compassion and respect. I also appreciate that you have written again on the hardest of subjects; this information really does help so many. Bless you

    • wordgeyser says:

      Thank you ma’am – sadly there seem to be an awful lot of hard subjects out there. I believe bringing them out of dark corners and into the sunlight make them less overwhelming and frightening. Works for me!

  3. Sarah Koblow says:

    As someone who has personal experience of the sudden traumatic loss of my beloved Dad on a beach in Bahrain twelve years ago, I know what a difference a caring response from those in ‘authority’ would have made to me. Instead tragedy was compounded by further trauma. Well done Holland again! Another reason to have stayed BUT? Passed on to equally wet and cold Brittany. Well done for celebrating what the Dutch do so well. Julia cameron author of The Writers Way says God = Good Orderly Direction which is always a blessing for those in the storm of grief and I am sure the comfort you are bringing to your beloved’s at this tragic time.

    • wordgeyser says:

      So very sorry you and your family had to deal with this traumatic situation so far from the comforting familiarity of home. Loved your definition of God – exactly how I feel. Comfort in the order of things.

  4. That’s great to know. But I think cremation is an easier option all around. But it’s lovely to hear that humanity and reference to death still exists…

    • wordgeyser says:

      I personally agree but for many people religion or culture dictate what ‘should’ happen to the deceased’s body.
      In the case of my friends their son will be cremated, but for them to fly to a foreign country, have him cremated there without family friends around them and then bring his ashes home wasn’t a practical option.
      On a lighter note, I’ve found it traumatic enough having our dog cremated here – her ashes are still sat in an urn on the kitchen window sill ready to go ‘home’. We want her ashes spread in the warmth of the country she was born and raised in. Too sentimental for words I know, but there you go!

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