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.

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.

The triumph of Death: the mummified monks of Rome’s Capuchin Crypt

Vertebrae rosettes. A crown of thorns made from finger bones. An arch of skulls.

Three skeletons of children lean huddled in a group as if to comfort one another. Behind them hangs an hourglass made of pelvis bones. Above soars the skeleton of a youth bearing a scythe of clavicles and scales made of kneecaps. Dirt and gravestones cover the floor. Mummified bodies wearing the cowled robes of Capuchin friars lie, sit, or even stand in alcoves. The mummies each have a label bearing, I suppose, the name they used in life. All are illegible.

I am in the Capuchin Crypt, a few minute’s walk from the famous Spanish Steps where hundreds of tourists are laughing and eating McDonalds while enjoying a sweeping view over the sun-soaked city. I am not with them, but rather in a dank vault, crouching to stare into the eye sockets of an anonymous skull. The Sumerians called the eyes the windows of the soul, but now those windows are shattered, the glass ground up and blown away as dust.

I actually waited in line to do this. The Capuchin Crypt runs on limited hours, and when the doors finally open I and a small crowd file in past a stressed-out woman at the front desk who repeats, “No cameras, no cell phones, postcards five euros” in a harassed monotone. Beyond her are five vaults filled with bones and a sixth filled with tablets bearing inscriptions in Italian and Latin. I don’t try to puzzle them out; the message of this place is all too clear.
The bones are arranged in decorative patterns reminiscent of the Baroque interior of some 17th century stately home. Ornate chandeliers made from finger- and jawbones hang so low I almost knock my head on them. The passages are narrow, the vaults small, and the mortal remains of hundreds of Capuchin friars crowd in on me. The crypt was started in the 17th century and has been added to ever since. It now houses an estimated 4,000 friars.

So how does it make me feel? I want to be sick. I want to kiss every living girl in here. I want to tell the woman at the front counter to lock up early and take the rest of the day off. I want to hug my son knowing one day I won’t be able to. I want to know the life history, dreams, loves, and favorite jokes of every one of these poor bastards arranged so meticulously for our edification. I can’t. They are no longer individuals, simply part of the decor. All in all you’re just another skull in the wall.

Four vaults away I can still hear the attendant repeating the rules to newcomers. No photography, but you can buy an overpriced postcard. What arrogance to think they own the dead! Nobody has the least claim over the dead; it’s their one advantage over the living.

The crypt is getting crowded with the living. People linger. Many laugh to cover their discomfort. Everyone speaks in whispers, but why whisper? The dead can’t hear you, and if you’re doing it out of respect, a better way to show respect would be to learn the lesson of this place. The lesson is, of course, to think about death. Like everyone else I have a natural defense mechanism. I know I’ll die but that horrible fact doesn’t intrude on my day-to-day happiness. Well, it does today, and that’s the point. This place is also meant to make us good Catholics, to embrace an unproveable god and its improbable doctrine. That I cannot do, but I sure do think about death.

Odd thoughts come to me. I should send my son a second postcard. I need to get cracking on my next novel. I still haven’t replied to Ed’s email.

Through a row of open windows shines dim sunlight and the sounds of construction next door. The pounding of hammers and the shouts of workmen. An ambulance wails in the distance, getting closer.

A young American woman cries out, “Ewww, this is gross!”

I don’t say anything because I always try to be kind to strangers, but I say to myself, “Oh, you think they’re disgusting and you’re beautiful? Just. You. Wait.”

So don’t forget death, because it’s probably coming sooner than you think, and certainly sooner than you hope.

Life is short, my friends, live it well.

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s sinister side.

[Photo courtesy Magnus Manske]

Venice hosts its own funeral

Venice is dying. At least, according to Newsweek it is. The population has been shrinking so rapidly (it dropped below 60,000 this year) that the mag predicts there won’t be a single full-time resident in the city by 2030. A city that sees millions of visitors per year, an average of 55,000 per day, won’t be home to a single person. Yeah, I’d call that a dead city.

To draw attention to the issue, residents of Venice have organized a mock funeral in which three gondolas will pull a red coffin through the city’s canals on Saturday, November 14th.

In addition to the flood of tourists who make the city nearly unlivable during summer months, other factors such as increasing home prices and a shrinking tax base, have combined to result in the mass exodus of long-time Venetians.

One of the organizers of the “funeral” says this doesn’t have to be the end though. He hopes that by drawing attention to the issue, some of the problems can be addressed and new citizens will be lured to Venice. “It might be the beginning; it could even spur a rebirth. Now we just have to create a Venice [people] will want to stay in. We have to give them a reason not to leave.”

[via Budget Travel]

1 dead, 3 hurt in Swiss ski lift accident

I’m scared of heights, and not afraid to admit it. To be fair, it’s not all heights that worry me; planes, for instance, do me no harm. But even the thought of particular situations make me a bit queasy. Hot air balloons, for instance, are the worst. A thin piece of fabric, a wicker basket, flames? No thanks. Another worrisome device that makes me nervous is the ski lift. Case in point:

Recently, near the Alpine Ski Resort in Grindelwald, Switzerland, one person was killed, and three injured when something terrible happened on a ski lift. The report is light on details, but you can let your mind wander with the horrors that come with someone dying on a ski lift. “Mountain rescue officials said other passengers on the chairlift had to be evacuated from the ground as high winds made the use of helicopters too dangerous.”

I’m sure more and more details will surface over the next few days. Until then, here are three tips for ski lift safety, from yours truly:

  1. Don’t get on a ski lift.
  2. Never go skiing. Ever.
  3. Why are you even leaving the house? It’s much safer inside…