SHARJAH // Complex paperwork, legal fees and the cost of air transport means many families of expatriates who die in the UAE face big bills when repatriating the body to their home country.
The cost of transporting a body to Europe is between Dh15,000 and Dh20,000, to Sri Lanka and India about Dh10,000 and Dh20,000 for some African countries.
But even with the financial burden, most families choose to bury loved ones at home, said John Korah, managing director of Grafco, which arranges repatriation.
"Around 90 per cent of all expats prefer to take the body back home," he said.
Kikomeko Ismael, chairman of the Ugandans in Dubai Association, said families have had to pay up to Dh18,000 to send a body to Uganda - a struggle for many.
"The cost includes buying the coffin, which can be up to Dh5,000, washing and embalming the body, fees to declare the death to the authorities and for paperwork, and then there's the use of a municipality ambulance," Mr Ismael said.
"Finally, airlines charge Dh65 to Dh70 per kilogram to carry the body and coffin, with a fuel surcharge of Dh25 per kg.
"It would take about a month or more to complete the paperwork and bureaucracies and this affects most traditional customs, especially Islamic ones of early burials.
"In most cases the community have to mobilise to pay the airline's charges and this takes days and weeks."
Before a body is released, relatives must obtain clearance from the police, authorities and the deceased's embassy. Visas must also be cancelled to obtain clearance from the airline.
"It can be a difficult process if you do not know where to go," Mr Korah said. In some cases, he added, repatriation is covered by medical insurance, but only if the individual requested it.
Many policies do not specify this, which means in times of need it is often families who cover the cost.
"You have to opt for that when you buy insurance," Mr Korah said. "Most of the time it is the families who pay."
One Sharjah resident, Mohammed, said the paperwork involved in sending his brother's body home to Kenya was complicated and took weeks to complete.
"My brother died in Kuwait Hospital in Sharjah but his visa was from Dubai, so I had to do paperwork in both Dubai and Sharjah," he said.
"First I had to have his visa cancelled in Dubai and his employer give us a consent form, then we went to hospital in Sharjah for the death notification paper that I had to take to the Health and Preventive Medicine Department to get a death certificate.
"The body was taken to Dubai for embalming, then to Baraha hospital where the ambulance finally carried it to the airport."
The process cost Mohammed Dh23,900.
"There was a time when I felt like giving up and I know if my brother could still talk in the mortuary he would have whispered to me, 'thanks brother, that's enough, have me buried here'," he said.
If the deceased had a valid residency visa, a burial in the UAE is allowed. This usually costs about Dh9,000, Mr Korah said.
Mr Kikomeko said community associations often helped. If a family decides to bury their loved one in the UAE, Mr Kikomeko's association pays the airfare of a relative to attend the funeral.
"An expatriate's family is responsible for the repatriation process and costs of flying over the body," said Naima Khamis, head of social services and public relations at Al Qassimi Hospital in Sharjah.
She said that if a person died of natural causes, the family could take the body without police permission. But if a body is not claimed within a month, it is buried in the UAE.
"Usually we do not face such a situation, as families do not leave their loved ones in the morgue or forget about them," Ms Khamis said.
If the death was the result of accident or a crime, then it is up to the police to give clearance, which can take a long time.
"We have a case where a body has been in our morgue for almost three years now," said Ms Khamis.
* With additional reporting by Vesela Todrova