What happens when someone in the military dies when they're in another country? This guide goes through the process of military repatriation - what it is, and what families can expect.
Repatriation is the process of bringing home the body of a Service Person who has died.
MOD policy on repatriation
The Ministry Of Defence (MOD) policy is to repatriate all Service People who have died to their country of origin. If they’re British nationals, this will be the UK. Repatriation to locations other than the UK may be considered, but this will be on a case-by-case basis. If they’re Foreign and Commonwealth (F&C), they’ll be repatriated to their country of origin, through the UK. This is to be done as soon as possible.
This was not always the case. During earlier conflicts, many soldiers were buried internationally. These were generally in cemeteries under the Commonwealth Graves Commission.
The repatriation of a service person from a non-operational duty station will be a low profile process.
This process will go through an appropriate airport:
- The body will be escorted by a MOD-contracted funeral director and Service Police.
- It’ll be cleared through customs. This will be authorised by the coroner who has jurisdiction over the airport.
- Once back in the country of origin, the body is handed to the family’s funeral director and the coroner.
- This handover takes place airside, so there isn’t any public access.
Any Inquests will be held once all the information has been collected by the coroner.
There won’t be a military ceremony.
If a death occurs overseas when the military person wasn’t on duty, such as on holiday, then their travel insurance company will make repatriation arrangements. In these cases, the MOD will often provide support as the body arrives in the UK.
Repatriation for an operational death will normally go through designated Service Airport. For example, RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. The service person who has died will be accompanied by a military ceremony.
Normally, up to seven family members will be invited to the ceremony. The Visiting Officer (VO) appointed to the family will arrange and coordinate their attendance. The family will be able to spend time with the coffin in a private chapel. The body will then be taken to the John Radcliffe Hospital for post-mortem.
Prior to the plane arriving, the family will be briefed by the Coroner’s Officer – they will go through what to expect for the ceremony and any procedures.
The flight will be accompanied by a Service police officer. They’ll hand the necessary documentation to the Coroner’s Officer. At this point, the Service Person who has died will pass into the authority of HM Coroner.
Following the post-mortem, MOD undertakers will take the body to their location in London. They’ll prepare it, and make arrangements to take it to a funeral director. The MOD undertakers also send a mortician to take care of the body. This is so they can advise on whether the body is suitable for viewing.
For a natural death, there is no difference from any death in civilian life. However, for an operational death, there may be complicating factors.
For an operational repatriation, you won’t be able to view the body until the post-mortem. It’s generally advised to wait until the person who has died has been brought back to the family undertaker.
The Next of Kin (NOK) and bereaved family has the right to view the body. However, it’s important that you are told about the state of the body, in case it might cause distress. You can talk to the coroner about this, the MOD Contractor who is accepted the body from the point of entry to UK, or your family undertaker.
Where there’s been profound physical damage, such an explosion, a DNA test might need to be done. This is to make sure the identity is correct.This process may take several weeks.
If there are no remains, the VO will be briefed by the JCCC to tell the family as soon as possible. You can talk to the Coroner’s Officer or the MOD undertaker for more information.
All deaths must be formally registered in order to get a Death Certificate. Deaths in the UK must be registered by the Registrar of the district where the happens.
However, UK Registrars are not able to register deaths overseas, even for UK nationals. It’s still possible to get a UK death certificate for a military death overseas. However, this must be done by a legally authorised Registering Officer.
An interim Death Certificate will be issued by HM Coroner when the body is released for burial. The final death certificate will be provided after the Inquest.