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The struggles of repatriating bodies of Nova Scotians who die abroad

The process is more difficult than locals expected

Canadian families are facing lengthy waits and complicated procedures when repatriating the remains of their deceased loved ones from foreign countries.

In August 2022, Jason Jacobson’s father was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer while on vacation with his family in England. Joel Jacobson, age 81, suddenly passed away of T-cell lymphoma on the trip. 

“After about a week and a half in the hospital in England, they gave him 24 hours to live and we were told to say our goodbyes,” said Jason Jacobson.

After his father’s death, Jason Jacobson and his family started the long process of getting the remains home to Nova Scotia. 

The long process

“When it first happened, I was talking to my friend, and she mentioned that it could take a while to get the body back home and I didn’t really believe her. I thought maybe three to four days at the most. Turns out she was right,” said Jason’s wife, Jessica Jacobson.

It took two weeks to get Joel Jacobson’s body back to Nova Scotia. Jessica Jacobson said there was no sense of urgency and a lack of communication from the funeral home that was in possession of her father-in-law.

C.S. Boswell Independent Funeral Services in England, where Joel Jacobson’s body was kept, declined to comment due to client confidentiality. 

A friend of Jason Jacobson’s, who works at Air Canada, helped get Joel Jacobson’s body on a flight back to Canada sooner than anticipated by contacting people in positions of power at the airline. 

“I just lucked out that my good friend was able to pull some strings to make sure my father’s body had priority on a plane back to Nova Scotia. However, if you don’t have connections, I can only imagine how much harder the situation would be,” Jason Jacobson said. 

Repatriation in Canada

Jane Titcombe, funeral director and general manager at MacKinnon and Bowes, Canada’s first and only specialized mortuary repatriation company in Etobicoke, Ont. works to repatriate up to 30 deceased persons per week, either to or from Canada.

“The United States is typically quicker since we share similar laws, but some places in Europe could take up to a month at the longest to repatriate a body,” Titcombe said. “Every country has different laws and different steps you have to take to get a loved one home. It could be one week, or it could be three, there is no one answer.” 

Titcombe warns that with an increasing number of Canadians travelling and living abroad, it’s important to look into travel and repatriation insurance, as people tend to be unaware of the complexities and high costs that are experienced with death abroad. 

A study by Statistics Canada found that Canadian residents returned from 3.7 million trips to the United States and roughly 800,000 trips from overseas in July 2023. Repatriating a body can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, and Canadian insurance policies tend to cover $5,000 to $50,000, depending on specific plans. 

“The problem is when you’re dealing with something so personal and emotional unless you are directly invested in it, it is just a business transaction to these professional companies,” Jessica Jacobson said. “That is what people need to know, and that adds to the complexity.”

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