The Journey Home

Faced with a sudden death, a son navigates a labyrinth of paperwork to repatriate his mother’s body back to New Zealand..

Six months ago, new Zealand and Vietnamese news carriers covered a tragic accident that took the life of a new Zealand woman and sent her four-day-old grandson into critical condition. Julie Ferne, who had come to Vietnam to share in the happiness of the birth of her new grandson, slipped on the stairs while holding the baby.

Phil Preston is the father of the child, and the son of the deceased.

The impact of the tragedy is slowly healing. “It’s been six months,” he says. “It’s ok.” By this stage, he is even starting to see the lighter side of the complex procedure he had to go through to repatriate his mother’s remains.

The process began when the death was confirmed. On Sunday, three days after the incident, preston met up with the New Zealand chancellor, the Vietnamese undertaker, and then had the insurance company on the phone to figure out how to proceed from there. Preston decided that it was important to send his mother’s remains back to her home country and that the process would be dealt with from this side by the Vietnamese undertaker, who had seen a body sent back to New Zealand just two and a half weeks before Preston came in. The whole process cost US$15,000 and involved the hospital, the local police, the undertaker’s office, and the Vietnamese customs department.

“That was the key to it all, to sit down with all three parties and figure out what needed to be done,” he explains.

Ticking off forms

A death certificate was sent out for three people to sign, including the doctor overseeing Preston’s mother, the undertaker of the morgue, and the coroner. The signing process alone took four days, during which the morgue prepared his mother for the journey home.

A New Zealand embassy staff member walked Preston through the process. “She was very good, super helpful. Said I could ring her anytime if I had questions.” Without her, Preston says, he wouldn’t have been able to get through it. “This form and that form (declaration of death certificate, final police report, final death certificate, among others), it was a bureaucratic minefield, going back and forth with forms and trying to get people to tick them off. There were just so many parties involved”.

There was trouble with the size of the coffin too. “It was a huge coffin. Western standards here are very large. For some reason we couldn’t find something smaller.” This would turn out to be a problem later on.

Preston held a quasi-Vietnamese funeral for his mother in the bay of the morgue where acquaintances, friends, and family members could come in, say goodbye to Mrs. Ferne, and pay their respects.

“People were coming in and out, singing songs and music, having drinks, and saying goodbye to her. Someone brought flowers. It was humbling seeing so many people coming in to say goodbye to her,” Preston recalls.

There was even a beggar. “The morgue door was open and anybody could walk in. It was an all open area. There were two funerals the same day as ours. We were in this bay and there was this Chinese person in the bay next to us. No separation except for the pillars and the roof. People spilled out the front and into the common area”.

A happy funeral

The boxing process had to be witnessed by a state officer to ensure that nothing aside from the coffin was in the shipping box. A guard was required at all times. “If it gets tampered with, then the process starts all over again, and we’d have missed the flight. Apparently this has happened before – smugglers opening it up and putting in drugs or whatever inside,” he explains. Preston’s older brother, Stefan, and a New Zealand undertaker took over once the coffin landed in New Zealand. The first problem they had was not paperwork but the coffin’s size.

“The coffin was so big it didn’t fit into the hearse,” says Preston, laughing about it now. “They had to put it in at an angle, and put a seat forward.”

Mrs. Fern’s funeral in Auckland was organized three weeks after the incident, much later than the normal new Zealand standard. “We had to make a date for the funeral, but we didn’t know how long it was going to take. But it was good timing. It made for a relaxed event. People had time to prepare themselves. It was a happy funeral. My mum was a loved member of the community.”

Preston’s advice to expats who go through the same experience is to be prepared for the culture shock since nothing was the same: “You can’t look at everything and expect there to be Western standards. Everything was different, even the way they prepared the body. You are in Vietnam, do as the Vietnamese do”.

He also advises to have a translator available at all times. “It’s difficult, especially if you don’t have anyone who can translate for you. None of the officials in Vietnam can speak English. You need a translator with you to do it. You are bound to make mistakes. It’s just impossible otherwise.” During the grueling week when most of the repatriation process took place, Hien, Preston’s Vietnamese friend and translator, stayed with him throughout.

“I think mum would have liked it,” he concludes. “It’s got flare, style. What a way to go.”


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