So, how often do people die aboard a cruise?
Cruise lines don’t exactly trumpet the exact number of deaths per year, but as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the good ol' CDC), a ship must divulge "any deaths or certain illnesses" to its port state. A look at such records from 2008 to 2018 from the Brevard (Florida) County Medical Examiner’s Office, home to Port Canaveral, the country's second-busiest, counted 129 naturally occurring deaths on cruises, including seven so far in 2018. Similar data from Miami-Dade County authorities reported 206 natural and 29 accidental deaths aboard cruise ships that call at America’s busiest port in the same period.
So for the nearly 10 million annual passengers who sail out of Florida, America’s flagship state for multi-day cruise embarkations, the incidence of death aboard any given voyage is low. Overall, the number that keeps popping up (as in Gizmodo and The Telegraph) is in the neighborhood of 200 dead cruisers a year, which, you know, for an industry that puts more than 20 million mostly greying individuals on the open ocean every year ain’t bad. The odds are overwhelmingly in your favor of returning home alive.
For those who do wind up in the bag, the cruise’s first order of business, typically, is to get ‘em off the boat as soon as is reasonable, ideally at the next port. There, the bodies of deceased passengers are unloaded, provided that the port country is able (has a morgue) to and willing (friendly) to accept the body. Whichever port country accepts the deceased can then issue a death certificate, the next step toward repatriation. For those passengers whose death did not occur abroad, a death certificate is still required for a legal ruling on the cause of death. Without that, the next of kin may encounter complications with the deceased’s will.
The CDC will hand the cruise to do a pile of paperwork after these deaths, and the headaches may not stop there for cruises. Dead people's families may sue. What I found talking to maritime lawyers and others around the industry is that it's simply not as regulated as air travel. There is no FAA equivalent for boats.
Most cruises retain a care team who will help the next of kin with repatriation: contacting a funeral home, making travel arrangements, dealing with insurance, and working with the local authorities back home. Some cruises also offer religious support. One seagoing group, Apostleship of the Sea, provides Catholic maritime ministers and priests to cruise lines; they offer religious consultation for mourners along with their typical chaplain duties.