The high cost of expat death

Low-income workers are struggling to send the bodies of loved ones home because the only company licensed to provide 'repatriation coffins' has nearly doubled its prices.

January 27, 2012, Sharjah, UAE:

The death industry opened its doors to The National today by way of a warehouse in Sharjah, the following images are a step by step to making a coffin.

 Left to right: Vivian Alberty and Mahadeer Mohamed of Middle East Assistance stand next to a "European styled repatriation coffin". In the background are "Basic styled repatriation coffins", which are finished in a rectangular shape.
Lee Hoagland/The National
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DUBAI // Low-income workers are struggling to send the bodies of loved ones home because the only company licensed to provide "repatriation coffins" in Dubai has nearly doubled its prices.

The price of the simple wooden box required for transporting a body by air went from Dh1,200 in December to Dh2,300 in January.

After an expatriate dies in Dubai, a complex and expensive process begins to return the body to its home country. Embalming costs Dh1,010, the ambulance to transport the body costs Dh210. Obtaining a death certificate takes Dh70, while cargo charges to transport the body to India or the Philippines costs Dh1,200 to Dh3,000 depending on destination and weight.

The body must also be placed in a standard wooden box - a "repatriation coffin" - for transport.

The Dubai Health Authority (DHA) says it has authorised only one company to sell these basic coffins. That company is located next to the embalming centre at the Sonapur Medical Fitness Centre in Muhaisnah.

A spokesman for the DHA explained: "We select a company after open competition and we do not allow any coffins from outside, purely because of security purposes.

"After embalming, we place the body in the coffin and seal the coffin and this takes place under the direct supervision of the DHA staff who are also responsible for transferring the coffins to the airport, through the municipality ambulance."

It is not entirely clear why coffin prices have risen so dramatically in the emirate.

A salesman at the coffin company said that everything has become expensive in Dubai, so the price of coffins has also gone up.

He declined to comment further.

A DHA spokesman said the coffin prices were set by the company, and not by the health authority.

The DHA also declined to comment further.

But a Dubai-based company that specialises in funeral services says that the winning bidder rents its "coffin office space" from the DHA, and that it submitted a very high price in its bid for the coffin contract.

"They went in with a ridiculous amount to keep the contract on that space," said Vivian Albertyn, founder of Middle East Assistance. "Now they don't have any option but to increase the prices of the coffins to overcome the expense."

Mr Albertyn said Middle East Assistance also participated in the tendering process.

"We lost out .... because of the reasonable prices we quoted. Poor people are going to suffer because of this," he said.

Embalming and coffin costs are much cheaper in Abu Dubai, he said, where they come to around Dh1,000. Still, he said, "many people do it in Dubai because the airport from where most bodies are transported is here."

Another private consultancy involved in funeral services said many of its customers were upset about the increase in the coffin prices. "It is a ridiculously high jump. We are getting a lot of complaints from our customers about the increase in the price of coffins," said the managing director of the consultancy.

According to the Dubai Statistics Centre, 1,430 non-Emiratis died in Dubai in 2010.

CP Matthew is the founder of Valley of Love, a Dubai-based voluntary organisation which helps repatriate the bodies of low-income workers. "All the expenses now come to more than Dh5,000 due to increase in the prices of coffins," he said. "Low-income groups like domestic workers, those who work in cafeterias and tailoring shops will be badly affected. Poor people will suffer.

"A lot of poor workers are planning to cremate or bury their loved ones here due to high charges involved in buying a coffin and transporting the body."

On many occasions, he said, workers collect money from friends and relatives to pay for the cost of embalming and buying a coffin.

"The present cost of the coffin is too much," he said.

Umarani Padmanabhan, a Dubai-based social worker, said coffin charges should be revised. "Not all companies sponsor the families. It will be a big burden on families, as well as on small companies to bear the costs involved in the transportation of bodies," she warned.