A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Even corpses get bumped from flights

I was standing over a coffin that contained the corpse of a 76-year-old American missionary whom I was supposed to help repatriate to the U.S., trying to figure out why he was naked. After a long consultation with Stevcho, a sinister-looking funeral parlor boss, my local colleague at the American embassy in Skopje concluded that the man’s clothes were “probably” at a forensics lab.

“Well, is he going to get them back?” I asked.

A long discussion ensued and Ljupka, my colleague, concluded that the man’s clothes were probably gone for good.

“But don’t worry,” she said. “The funeral parlor in the U.S. will get him a nice suit. His daughter won’t have to see him like this.”

The men wanted me to confirm that the body was a man whom I’ll call Joe. But the corpse in front of me bore only a vague resemblance to the passport photo I held in my hand.

“They found his passport on him, right?” I asked. “So I guess it must be him.”

With that, I signed a few more receipts, and then two workers moved into action, using a medieval looking blowtorch to seal the coffin shut for its flight.

We followed a Blues-Brothers-like hearse to a cargo warehouse adjacent to Skopje’s rather unimpressive little airport. The cargo guy had three empty cans of beer on his desk. One of them was flattened like a pancake. He had a calendar featuring photos of nude women hanging above his head. It was 4:30 p.m. on a Friday and my colleagues were, ironically, at a sexual harassment seminar that very afternoon. The mildly inebriated shipping clerk didn’t inspire confidence but he and Ljupka seemed to work out Joe’s travel plans in a matter of moments.

“He’s going to have a three hour layover in Vienna,” Ljupka said, looking to me for approval.

“That’ll be fine,” I said, feeling ridiculous.

Of course, it would be fine; dead people don’t mind layovers.

I half expected them to ask me if he wanted a window or an aisle seat, or if he had any dietary restrictions or a frequent flyer card.As we left the airport, I felt sad and a bit ashamed, as though I’d just been complicit in something tawdry. I felt bad about leaving and asked Ljupka if I owed it to Joe to stay with him, to make sure he made it onto his flight.

“But his flight doesn’t leave until tomorrow afternoon,” she said. “You aren’t going to sit in a warehouse, watching him all night. Come on, who’s going to want a dead body?”

I accepted her logic but didn’t trust the beer-drinking cargo guy. On the way back to the embassy, I called my boss and asked her what she found out about Joe. Other than the fact that he was a missionary from Arkansas, she also ascertained that he was a Korean War veteran and had just been back to Arkansas for a visit one month before. His daughter had told him he ought to come home, but Joe believed in his work and wanted to stay.

I went home and told my wife that I didn’t want to die – especially not in Macedonia. The weekend passed and we heard nothing from the cargo guy so I assumed that everything was fine. But then, a few days later, we got a call from the funeral director in Arkansas informing us that Joe hadn’t arrived.

After making some calls, we determined that poor Joe was still in Skopje, sitting in the cargo warehouse. Apparently, Austrian Airlines had a policy against accepting bodies from “certain countries,” and Macedonia was one of those. The drunken cargo dude had not bothered to call and tell us.

Ljupka spent the next day or two trying to find an airline that would accept Joe. One of them wanted too much money and the family could not, or would not pay what was asked. I thought about using priceline.com to bid for Joe’s ticket home, but thought better of it. Eventually, Ljupka worked it out and almost a week later Joe arrived home safe and sound.

I never met the man but I felt a strange kinship with him. We were two Americans living far from home in a country where we would always be viewed as foreign, no matter how long we stayed. I tried my best to get him home but couldn’t help but conclude that he deserved better.

Read part one of this story and the rest of this series here.

Image via Hugo90 on Flickr.