Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Nov 5, 2009 | 0 comments

What if a person dies one place but needs to go someplace else in the U.S. for burial?

If Aunt Martha dies in Arizona but has a burial plot back east in Massachusetts, what do you do to get her there? You can’t just fly Aunt Martha home in the back seat of your Cessna. Driving her there in the back of a pick-up truck is another story.

Shipping a body domestically, while simpler than international shipping, still has many parts to address. International shipping of bodies adds a whole other layer of time and activity to the process. Both domestic and international shipping can be either a quick or lengthy process. This information comes courtesy of Bill Piet, a funeral director with Porter Loring Mortuaries of San Antonio, Texas, which ships 60 to 80 bodies a year.

Whole body shipment by air is handled as airfreight. You need to work with a funeral home to ship a body, as they know what to do, how to handle the paperwork, and provide the proper containers. And in today’s post-9/11 world, it’s a requirement.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has a “known shipper” policy, which became effective July 1, 2009. It states that all human remains shipments that originate in the U.S. or its territories must be tendered by a known shipper, which in this case is the funeral home. Funeral homes are required to register with each airline and become part of the TSA Known Shipper database.

If pre-need arrangements have been made with a funeral home at the destination, start the process by contacting them first. The funeral director will then work with a local provider at the origination point. If no arrangements have been done in advance, it’s time to get on the phone and do some research for mortuaries at the destination city.

A Burial-Transit Permit is required when transporting a body out-of-state and for transporting by Common Carrier (airlines or trains). Permits are obtained from the local health department or county clerk’s office (this varies by state) by providing a Death Certificate. While a fully completed death certificate can take two or three weeks to obtain, the certificate for a Burial-Transit Permit can be completed by the funeral home with biographical information about the deceased, minus cause of death confirmation. There can be delays getting a permit over weekends and holidays.

Within the U.S., very few states require embalming before shipping, and those states have exceptions for religions, most notably Judaism and Islam, which prohibit embalming. If the body is to be embalmed, it should occur before shipping. Embalming, or not, impacts the choice of containers for air shipping. An un-embalmed body can be preserved with cool packs in the container. The use of dry ice as a refrigerant in air shipping is now prohibited, as it can pose a danger at high altitudes.

An embalmed body can be shipped in a casket enclosed by a shipping case called an Air Tray, a heavy cardboard box with a wood bottom designed to protect the casket. There’s also a combination container specifically designed for body shipment. If the body is not embalmed, the funeral home must use a Ziegler Container, a metal box that seals tightly to prevent seepage of fluids or escape of odors. Whatever the container, the Burial-Transit Permit is enclosed in a sturdy envelope and attached to the shipping case.

The cost for these containers varies. One funeral home charges $175 for an Air Tray, $195 for a combination container, and $785 for a Ziegler Container. Ziegler Containers are typically destroyed after one use.

Some considerations when shipping by air include the size of the destination airport – a small airport may only accommodate smaller planes, which don’t have large enough cargo space to carry human remains. The smallest plane that can easily carry human remains is an MD80. Most airlines elect to not ship bodies on the popular 737. And most airlines have a carrying limit of 500 pounds gross weight, which includes the body, the casket or container, and the Air Tray – something to keep in mind if the deceased was obese.

The funeral home needs to know the operating hours for an airport’s Air Cargo center, and when to arrive and receive air cargo. It would be a shame if Aunt Martha got parked in Air Cargo over the weekend when the office is closed. Another consideration is whether the routing of your precious cargo has airline hub changes. Two hours between flights should be enough time to make sure Aunt Martha makes her connection and gets to her funeral on time.

Shipping by train, another Common Carrier, is not done as much as it used to be, but it’s still do-able and the same regulations as air cargo apply. It can be a most appropriate way to send a loved one home. Bill Piet related how Porter Loring Mortuaries used Amtrak to ship a retired conductor from Texas to St. Louis, Missouri, fulfilling the man’s wish to be transported to his final resting place by train.

Driving a Body to Its Final Resting Place

If the destination is drivable, either the funeral home or the family can transport the body by vehicle. In Texas, for a body transported by a funeral director in a company van or SUV, no container is needed. They can use a cot or stretcher. If you’re taking Aunt Martha in the family pick-up or mini-van, her body must be encased in a container that insures against seepage of fluids or escape of offensive odors, i.e. a sealed casket or Ziegler Container. State regulations can vary, so if you’re going to do the driving, especially across several states, find out what you need to do from a local funeral home or your state’s department of health.

And, if the trip is long so long that you’ll need a good nights’ sleep along the way, your local funeral director may be able to help arrange for a mortuary in the city where you plan to stop to hold the body in their facilities overnight. We’ve all heard about items stolen out of vehicles parked at motels. While I doubt someone would want to steal Aunt Martha body, it’s better to play it safe. And it’s more respectful of the body to put it in a secure spot overnight, rather than leaving it out in the parking lot.

Out-of-state transportation requires a Burial-Transit Permit with the body. In-state transportation (in Texas) requires you have a Report of Death form with the body, but again, check for your particular state’s regulations. After all, you wouldn’t want to be pulled over by the cops with a dead body in your car and not be able to prove it’s really okay.

A Good Goodbye