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How Crowdfunding Websites Are Helping Brits Repatriate the Dead Bodies of Loved Ones

If a British family member dies abroad without insurance, the cost of getting them home can be astronomical.

by Shanna Jones
Jun 19 2015, 9:00pm

Bangkok hospital. Photo by Mr Conan via

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Traveling, while beautiful and magical and life-changing, can also be dangerous. You could be accosted and robbed by a group of men dressed as policemen, or you could be bitten by something it's not good to be bitten by, or—in the worst-case scenario—you could end up dead. Tourists suffering fatal accidents or being killed abroad isn't as uncommon as you may think; between 2013 and 2014, for example, 362 Brits died in Thailand alone.

In this scenario, if you don't have insurance, your family will be the ones who have to pick up the pieces financially—and it doesn't come cheap. The families of dead or injured travelers are increasingly having to turn to creative money-raising methods to repatriate their ill or dead loved ones, with crowdfunding websites recently becoming one prominent choice.

In April, Welshman Samuel Corria's family had to crowdfund what they could of $118,000 for emergency surgery, as well as the extra $38,000-a-month rehabilitation bills. The 18-year-old was involved in a car accident in Australia without insurance (it had expired). Luckily, in this case, the accident wasn't fatal—but often, that's not the case.

Take the family of 26-year-old Bristol laborer, Sam Austin, who turned to crowdfunding when they had to raise the money to fly his dead body home after a fall from a sky train in Bangkok in November. Repatriation costs were placed between $12,700 and $19,000, but the campaign reached $24,000, meaning that the excess could be spent on Sam's funeral and donated to his family. His friends said they were "amazed with the response."

A company that conducts private research into tourism recently found that, on average, each year 24 percent of Brits travel abroad without any form of health or travel insurance, and that young people are even more prone to it, with 48 percent not always taking out travel insurance.

Some people want to save money, others just forget to sort it out. A general statement released by the UK's financial dispute resolution service, the Financial Ombudsman, said: "For many customers, travel insurance may be the most complex financial product they purchase during the year. But it is often seen as just an 'add-on' to a holiday."

The late Max Grainger's story provides another bleak example of the many complications that follow after something happens to you overseas when you have no insurance. Max went to Thailand to start a new life after his marriage broke down. In July of 2014 he was on his motorbike at night when he was hit by a drunk driver with no lights, leaving him in a coma. The 35-year-old didn't have insurance, meaning that his relatives had to raise $46,000 themselves to bring his comatose body home.

A huge portion of that figure—$40,763—came from gofundme.com, and $2,540 came from fundraising club nights organized by his siblings. Max's little brother, Ed Tolkien, an artist, said it was a race to get his brother home alive amid a confusing scramble of communication with the British embassy and the Thai government. The British embassy gave the family a list of lawyers and interpreters but said they couldn't help them any further, especially not financially.

The family came across Air Medical Group, a repatriation company that promised to organize the whole operation. In reality, they weren't especially efficient. Ed's eldest sister, Alice, had to be in touch with them regularly, telling them what to do and making sure that they firmed up arrangements. AMG should have been able to organize a flight and ambulances but there were complications. "They failed to contact the hospital in Nottingham to tell them Max was coming," says Ed.

There were also a lot of complications because of the dodgy practices in the Thai Hospital. "The doctor was refusing to sign the release forms for ages and had to be paid-off," explained Ed. "In the end, the paramedic from AMG had to just go in and take Max away. Apparently the nurses were trying to stop them while asking for more money." Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham assessed Max only to find he had been mistreated and neglected in Thailand; his feeding tube was way too big and deep, and he had some of the worst bed sores they had ever seen, even though the family had hired a private nurse to take care of him.

After spending six months in a coma in the Thai hospital, Max died within two weeks of returning to England.

There is no system currently in place in the UK to help families with the costs of repatriation, or medical expenses for unfortunate loved ones. Max's story also goes to show that there's not much of a non-financial support system in place, either.

"The British embassy were, in fact, at times a hindrance to the situation," says Ed. "They sent us an inaccurate bill from the hospital, on which the total cost for all the items [operations, etc.] didn't add up correctly, showing that they obviously hadn't checked it. None of the advice they provided helped us in any way, and all of the groundwork was carried out by the family."

Without gofundme, Max's family wouldn't have seen Max before he died. After the experience, Ed's views on insurance have strengthened. "I think insurance is essential, whatever amount of time you spend in a foreign country, especially if you're in a country like Thailand where the roads are so dodgy."

Evidently, young Brits ought to be a little more prepared when it comes to booking travel insurance. However, the problem of not having financial backing in case of an emergency does not lie solely with those who have taken a chance to save a bit of cash; some travel insurers have get-out clauses that render your policy completely void. If you hire a quad bike on the day and have an accident, for instance, some will refuse to pay out. Others will relinquish responsibility if you're found to have trace amounts of alcohol in your system after an accident.

As the British Insurance Brokers' Association website reads: "We believe that travelers will be surprised that there is such a variety of exclusions within policies, and they need to understand what level of alcohol could invalidate a claim and if excessive, it almost certainly will." But if you're British, you've been to Britain, or you've seen a Brit on holiday, you'll know how absurd it is for anyone to assume that a Brit won't be consuming an alcoholic beverage abroad.

So the message here is clear: read the small print on your insurance, and if you don't like it, shop around. As Max's family unfortunately discovered, there is no system currently in the UK to help families with the costs of repatriation or medical expenses for unfortunate loved-ones, and that's not looking likely to change.

In the meantime, help doesn't always need to be financial. "It would have been nice to have more support and to be given more information about local protocol, etc," said Ed. "We weren't left with much confidence in the British Embassy; they seemed to be reluctant to get involved in any way."

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