Repatriating family members: To love through life, to love through death

words: ECD International

James Kindleysides and Alan Webb-Moore, of ECD International, reflect on the impact of COVID-19 on the families waiting for a loved one’s return

We believe it’s a human need to feel like you are making a difference in this world and when we wake up in the morning, we feel truly humbled in the knowledge that we bring families together. Not in life, but in death. The loss of a loved one is a tragic experience, as poignantly captured by W. H. Auden in his poem Funeral Blues:

‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come’

It is to our families that we turn in these dark times to find strength because as Nietzsche put it, “In family life, love is the oil that eases friction, the cement that binds closer together, and the music that brings harmony.”

This sense of belonging and togetherness which a family provides, we believe is still just as poignant after death as it is during life. So, when we reflect on March, when the first lockdown was announced, our overriding thought was around duty. The sense of duty we had to make sure that families could still be reunited after they had suffered a bereavement. It is an unimaginable sense of achievement to facilitate the arrival of a loved one back home with their family – safe in the knowledge they have reached their final resting place.

During the process of repatriation, the family is often in contact with their repatriation company, and we can hear how anxiously they await the arrival of their brother, sister, mother, father, son, daughter, grandparent and/or friend. You get a short insight into the life of that family and the amount of love that exists between them. It is a real honour to be able to support bereaved families through the ups and downs along the journey, and you feel part of that togetherness. We feel a sense of pride.

No one could have planned for what happened during lockdown, when the aviation industry was forced to cancel flights and borders were being closed. However, you can imagine how hard it was having to convey that message to a family awaiting the arrival of their loved one. As we stood back helplessly viewing departure boards updated with the word ‘CANCELLED’, the full impact of the pandemic hit home.

One of the many logistical concerns was around space. Mortuaries were operating at maximum capacity as sudden delays impacted international repatriation. But the industry pulled together and supported one another. Dignity for the deceased was always at the forefront.

Fortunately, airports were not closed for long, but inconsistent schedules and overbooked flights have meant less transparency in pricing because the rates are fluctuating daily, which can lead to increasing costs. And all this at a time when families were already struggling to make ends meet.

Country-specific initiatives exist to help with the financial outlay of repatriating the deceased back to their country of origin. Pakistan International Airlines for example, usually pays the freight charges, but during the pandemic alternative airlines have had to be used who do not offer the same incentives, adding to the financial strain on bereaved families.

Paperwork is something you get used to, working in repatriation. With COVID-19, however, the introduction of more country-specific regulations has doubled processing times and this led to conflict with cultural and religious best practice. For example, burial immediately after death is common practice among certain religions. Flight delays, airline policy on transporting COVID-19 victims, sanitisation requirements and use of municipal graves all impact families’ cultural traditions,causing distress.

With an ever-changing regulatory landscape, a good working relationship with embassies is vital. Also, it has been more important than ever to make sure you have a good network of partners in place around the world to help operate in a new COVID-19 world.

No matter how many hurdles have been in place during 2020, we are delighted to continue to reunite loved ones back home to their families.

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