According to a survey conducted amongst expats in Thailand last year, ignorance and concerns about the procedures if someone close dies here loom large in the worries people have. The British foreign office last month issued an advisory circular advising next-of-kin on handling crime-related deaths in Thailand such as murder, manslaughter or suspicious circumstances. However, much of the circular also applies to non-criminal deaths.
There are no official statistics produced by the Thai government on farang deaths. Occasionally, embassies in Bangkok do shed some light and it appears, for example, that around 100 Australians die in Thailand annually and about 250 British nationals. The usual assumption is that approximately 1,000 non-Thais of all nationalities die in the Kingdom every year. It may be that a growing percentage of this number is Chinese.
The overwhelming majority of the deaths are from natural causes and accidents. Because the average age of long-term expats appears to be rising, health problems present a growing challenge. It is very difficult for retirees in their 70s to obtain good-quality medical insurance at a price they can afford. As regards younger men and women, usually tourists, motorbike crashes and accidental drownings loom large. Only about five percent of all deaths of foreigners are thought to be crime-related or suicides.
Most people die at home or in a hospital or in a public place. A phone call to the police is virtually automatic and it is at police discretion whether to insist on an autopsy. All suspicious deaths will incur an autopsy usually conducted at the Police Hospital in Bangkok. If, however, a patient dies in a hospital which has a record of treatment and medicines, say for heart trouble, then the police will likely not insist on an autopsy.
Next-of-kin will not be able to move the body from any hospital without obtaining from the appropriate embassy a letter of release which permits the undertaker to prepare the corpse for hygienic disposal (cremation) in Thailand, or transfer back to the home country in an embalmed state, if that is what the next-of-kin or executor requires. However, it should be noted that there are many expenses – hospital and autopsy fees, funeral home fees, embassy charges, etc. – which the nearest and dearest will have to pay. The total bill can be higher than expected. It is often forgotten that cold storage of a corpse, which can last for weeks in difficult cases, can be subject to a mortuary charge of 600 baht a day.
Burials in Thailand are rare and more expensive than back in Europe or the United States. Cremations at a Thai temple can cost anything from 25,000 baht to 100,000 baht depending on what specific services are ordered. Cremations in city centre temples are more expensive than in rural areas. In cases where a foreigner dies and there is absolutely nobody to take care of the costs, the Thai state will likely host a pauper’s cremation or turn the body over to one of several rescue organizations (such as Sawangboriboon) which keep plots of land as temporary gravesites.
Added to all these stresses is the scenario where loved ones have been murdered. There is likely to be sustained press and social media interest, some of it brutal to say the least, and including the publication of disturbing photographs. If the police arrest a suspect or suspects, the resulting court case can take several years to complete, rules of evidence in Thailand may be unfamiliar to visitors from Europe or the United States.
In recent years, the Thai government – through its justice and tourism ministries – has introduced discretionary compensation schemes for the families of the deceased. The maximum payment per family is 100,000 baht, although this upper limit is seldom awarded. Moreover, it is not possible to award compensation if a court case is still pending. Most of the payments to date seem to have been made to the relatives of foreigners in a fatal accident, say a drowning or a motorway pile-up of vehicles.
Death in a foreign land is a crisis time for the nearest and dearest who have the additional burdens of cost and language difficulty as all relevant documents will be in Thai. Provided the relatives have funds to transfer, non-criminal deaths are quite easy to administer and all embassies keep a list of recommended undertakers who will be responsible for the detail. If the death is suspicious in some way, there may be the need to hire a good lawyer to represent the family’s interests. But patience will indeed be necessary. In life or death, it is never possible to hurry the Orient.