Seems the good folks at British Airways don’t have a clear policy when someone dies mid-flight.

After a plane took off from Dehli, India on an 8-hour trip to London, a woman in her seventies died.  Because the economy section of the plane was quite full, they moved her body to the first class cabin, where there was more room.

 After strapping her body into the seat, they allowed her daughter to sit with her.  Her wails of grief disturbed the first class passengers and perturbed one flier so much that he gave a lengthy interview to The Times.

Read the full Times story here.

The interview reveals that the woman was placed several yards from him, at the other end of the row, and that he was bothered that the daughter was grieving (wailing, he claims) so close to him.

“I felt helpless. Grief is a very personal thing; it’s not as if there was anything I could do or say,” said Mr. Paul Tinder, the interviewed flier.

I find this quote to be especially revealing.  It illuminates one of the biggest issues deathcare professionals face when dealing with the general public:  the mystery and secrecy of death.

Mr. Tinder didn’t feel he could help, so he didn’t want to be involved.  He suggests that the airline should have a better system in place to deal with this issue, even though 36 million people fly British Airways every year and on average only ten die in flight.

The article describes “corpse cabinets” that Singapore Airlines has installed on their Airbus 340-500 aircraft.  This locker is used to house remains of those who die in flight.

I think the BA crew was more compassionate by placing the woman’s remains in a seat, allowing her family to attend to her in a way the “corpse cabinet” would have prohibited. 

Mr. Tinder also expresses his concern that “when you have a decaying body on a plane at room temperature for more than five hours there are significant health and safety risks.”

This is a myth that most funeral directors continue to encourage.  How often have we warned families about having unembalmed viewings?  What is the first argument we use when describing the reasons to embalm?

Truth is, most of us have dealt with families that wanted us to delay a removal for several hours to accommodate a traveling family member or a religious ceremony.  Many of us have been called to remove remains eight or ten hours after death, only to find that there is little difference in the state of the remains.

Should Mr. Tinder have been concerned about what he considered “decaying remains?”  Maybe to ascertain if she died from an airborne disease.  But otherwise, he needed to show compassion at such a difficult time.

Unfortunately, when he complained about the situation, BA told him to “get over it.”  Probably not the best decision, from a customer relations standpoint. 

But since his complaints seemed mostly focused upon his own comfort (he didn’t like the fact that the daughter wailed in grief during the remainder of the flight), I can certainly understand the inclination for someone at BA to tell him to grow up.

Our culture (and British culture, it seems) doesn’t adequately prepare us for death.  For many of us, the first experience we have with the pain and difficulty of death is when a beloved family member dies.  With no preparation, many of us simply panic.

With no frame of reference, members of our culture see death as a mysterious event that means pain.  And we are programmed to stay away from pain at all costs.

So we ignore.  And we get annoyed when death is forced upon us when it’s not necessary.  Most Americans have the attitude that “if it’s not my family or someone I care about, I don’t want to be involved.”

So Americans ignore state laws, like Florida’s that require drivers to yield right-of-way to funeral processions.  Some other time, I’ll tell you how I almost got run over while trying to stop traffic for a procession.

Those are the symptoms.  But what is the cure?

Education.  As always, we’ve got to be front and center telling our communities about death, educating them about what death means and how to react.

Teach a death and dying class, host tours of your facility, speak at career day.  Do something to tell your community who you are, what you do and how you can help. 

Maybe after we’ve taught our community we’ll stop seeing flip-flops at funerals or cut-off shorts at viewings.

Well… maybe not.  But we can hope.

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