A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Try not to die in Macedonia

You never forget your first dead body. One Friday afternoon several years ago, my boss at the American embassy in Skopje informed me that a 76-year-old American missionary, whom I’ll refer to as Joe, had died of a heart attack.

When an American citizen dies overseas and has no immediate relatives in the country, a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) has to identify the body, notify their next-of-kin and help arrange for the body to be transported back to the U.S., if that is the family’s wish. Only the gloomiest traveler or expat thinks about these macabre practicalities before leaving the U.S., but if you die abroad, an FSO is very likely to be involved in what happens next.

My boss agreed to make the notification phone call to Joe’s daughter back in Arkansas but said that I’d have to go out to identify his body and take care of the paperwork. This seemed like a good bargain to me, because my only experience with making death-notification phone calls came in a consular training course at the Foreign Service Institute and had been something of a disaster.

There were six of us in the class, five FSO’s and a ditzy civil servant who worked for some sort of governmental public affairs hotline. We were given scenarios and asked to role-play death notification phone calls. Cruelly, the instructor made the ditzy woman go first.

“Hi, my name is Karen Smith and I’m calling from the American Embassy,” she began, promisingly. (not her real name) “I’d like to speak to the next-of-kin of Tom Jones.”

We all burst out laughing before the instructor piped in.

“Ummm, you don’t ask to speak to next-of-kin,” he said. “That kind of foreshadows what you’re about to tell them.”

We had so much fun laughing about the next-of-kin gaffe that none of us could conjure the seriousness that was needed to make the calls and the exercise degenerated into a farce.

So luckily, my boss made the call and reported back that Joe’s daughter wasn’t particularly surprised that he had died. His wife had passed away a few years before and he got involved with a church that recruited him to serve as a missionary in Macedonia. The daughter wanted his body sent back to Arkansas but indicated that they didn’t have much money and thus needed to get a good price.

Ljupka, one of the embassy’s local employees, accompanied me out to an enormous, desolate area of Skopje called Butel to identify Joe. Inside the funeral home, we were ushered into the cluttered office of a pudgy, sweaty man named Stevcho, who ran the place. Stevcho boasted that he personally took care of all the Americans who had the misfortune of dying in Macedonia.He and Ljupka made small talk in Macedonian as reams of documents were plopped onto his desk. I sat impassively and signed my illegible scrawl as Ljupka instructed. Some documents required only my signature, while others also needed a stamp that had my name on it, or various seals and insignias. Paperwork is inescapable, even in death.

Ljupka and I were led into a warehouse to identify Joe’s body. Almost a dozen men, half of them government inspectors in funny looking communist leftover uniforms, stood around the casket. The men were in grand, Friday afternoon moods, and were chatting and joking with each other. I walked over towards the casket and cautiously looked down. The first thing I noticed was his bare feet.

“Ljupka, where are his shoes and socks?” I asked.

She had no idea. Joe was swaddled in a grubby looking, shaggy blanket. It was one of those cheap, cheesy looking blankets that have images of animals, like eagles or brown bears that you see people selling in abandoned gas stations and vacant parking lots. Joe had no shirt on, I could tell.

A sinister cloud of smoke soon hung lazily over the poor man’s coffin as the men lit cigarettes.

“Can you at least ask these guys to not smoke right on him,” I asked Ljupka.

“Dave, he’s dead, I don’t think the secondhand smoke is going to hurt him,” she said.

She had a point. Yet, somehow I wanted the men to be a bit more somber, more respectful. The only photo I had of Joe was his American passport, which was found on his body. In it, he looked very robust, healthy, and, well, alive. But now his face looked incredibly gaunt and shriveled. His mouth was agape and he had no teeth. Had someone stolen his dentures?

A man wearing a stained t-shirt grabbed hold of the top of the grubby blanket, which covered most of Joe, and asked a question in Macedonian that I couldn’t understand.

“He wants to know if he should uncover the blanket, so you can identify him,” she said. ‘He’s naked underneath.”

Naked? No one had told me anything about having to see an old, dead guy naked.

“Am I required to see him naked?” I asked.

Ljupka didn’t think so, so I told them to spare us.

“But where the hell are his clothes?” I asked.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of this story – Even the dead can get bumped from a flight.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via a.drian on Flickr.