A fall on a hiking path or a sudden heart attack could bring your Swiss holiday to an abrupt end. How difficult is it to ensure your mortal remains reach home?
Indian retiree Susanta Mukhopadhya had no idea that his life would be turned upside down on his holiday to Switzerland. He had booked a 12-day coach trip through Europe and was on his second day in the Alpine nation when disaster struck. His 64-year-old wife collapsed on a walk near Leysin in the west of the country. The tour leader, an Indian woman, had no idea what to do.
“When my wife collapsed on the road, the tour representative was trying to call Bombay for further instructions. She had no local contacts or the phone number of a hospital,” Mukhopadhya told swissinfo.ch.
Luckily a Swiss couple noticed the commotion and called the medical emergency services. Within 15 minutes the paramedics were at the scene.
“It was only then that I realised the seriousness of my wife's situation. She had suffered a sudden, massive heart attack,” says Mukhopadhya.
She was transported to the University Hospital in Lausanne an hour away where she died a few hours later.
“I have no doubt that my wife received the best medical care possible, but the real tragedy occurred after her death. All that I faced was horrendous,” says Mukhopadhya.
Money and paperwork
The first problem Mukhopadhya faced was language. Hardly anyone that he encountered at the hospital spoke English. Luckily, India’s Twitter-friendly foreign minister Sushma Swaraj responded to an acquaintance’s tweet for help and asked the Indian embassy to assist.
The embassy staff were able to help with the language barrier but more obstacles remained. Mukhopadhya immediately informed the Indian insurance company from whom he had bought travel insurance. It was a company used by the tour operator. The insurance firm sent a form to be filled in that would allow them to make any upfront payments (cashless payment facility). There was one big hitch. The form demanded a death certificate and a detailed medical report.
“The doctor told me that they are not allowed to issue a death certificate. They issue an internal report and send it to the appropriate authority who issues the death certificate. We were told that it could take between eight to ten days,” says Mukhopadhya.
The medical report could take up to a month as different departments at the hospital are involved and each one has to provide a separate report as to what happened and what treatment was provided. The lack of a death certificate and medical report meant no insurance financial support and Mukhopadhya had to pay a CHF10,000 ($10,169) deposit to release his wife’s body from the hospital morgue (and pay the rest of the hospital bill later).
“Fortunately, we were a group of six friends travelling together and we pooled our credit cards to pay the amount,” he says.
The Indian embassy recommended abandoning the idea of transporting the body to India as the procedure is very long. It would mean staying back and spending a lot of money in hotel stays. Mukhopadhya decided to cremate his wife in Switzerland. An Indian association helped him find a funeral company that could help with all the formalities of releasing the body from the hospital, as well as organising the cremation. Around 24 hours and CHF2,500 later the body was cremated in Switzerland.
But Mukhopadhya could not just carry his wife’s ashes home on his flight back. The urn containing the ashes required immigration clearance from Swiss and Indian customs which can take two or three days. Mukhopadhya was forced to return home empty handed and the urn was eventually collected by his son - who flew in from the US where he lives - from the Indian embassy's office in the Swiss capital Bern. To make matters worse, the insurance company said that ashes were not included in their definition of mortal remains and Mukhopadhya had to pay for all the expenses to bring the urn back.
Two months later he received the hospital bill from Switzerland. He still had around CHF23,000 to pay and began getting polite reminders to settle his dues. After threatening to contact the foreign minister, the insurance company agreed to provide a guarantee to the hospital to pay the balance amount. He is still trying to recover some of the CHF20,000 he spent in Switzerland over those four horrible days.
“I tell all my friends and relatives that international travel insurance obtained from India is a hoax. I shudder to think of what would have happened if my friends were not there to help me raise the money needed,” he says.
Dying: the official response
Daniela Roth, spokesperson for Jungfraujoch, one of the most popular Swiss tourist destinations for Indians, says this:
“If a tourist dies on Jungfraujoch, the body will be transported by helicopter or train to the village of Lauterbrunnen in the valley below. There the police takes care of it. As far as I know the police get in contact with the embassy and organise further inspections and transport of the body.”
Letizia Paladino, spokesperson for Bern cantonal police - under whose jurisdiction Jungfraujoch falls - indicated that police are usually not involved in the case of natural deaths:
“The police play a leading role in deaths only if they are extraordinary [unnatural] deaths. In such cases, one of our duties is to establish the causes and circumstances of death. The other is to identify the victim's body. Once the identity is established, the family is informed by the embassy. The body will be handed over to the latter (or to the competent municipal authorities) once it is released by the competent public prosecutor. In the case of a natural death, the police are not necessarily involved.”
According to Gerald Dérivaz from the registry office of the canton of Vaud - which is home to tourist attractions like Chillon Castle and the Chaplin Museum - local officials and bureaucrats are responsible for most of the formalities surrounding a dead body.
“Any death (Swiss or foreign) must be reported to the competent registry office, i.e. that of the place where the person dies. This is a legal obligation.
The registry office then registers the death once the identity of the person has been determined though existing records or identity documents.
After this, the transport of the body of a foreigner who has died in Switzerland is no longer the responsibility of the registry office authorities but of the competent administrative authorities and is laid down by federal legislation and international conventions to which Switzerland has acceded.
If the place of burial or cremation is overseas, the transport of the deceased requires an authorisation document from the prefect of the district in which the death occurred, as well as the coroner report from the municipality of the place of death. These documents can only be obtained upon furnishing a certificate of registration of death from the relevant registry office. In addition, a medical certificate is required that attests that there are no health risks preventing the transport of the body. The all clear from the customs authority is also needed and they have to clearly indicate the final destination of the body.”end of infobox