Irish Lives: Family helps bring home bodies of those who die abroad
To honour their son Kevin, who died in 2013, the Bells set up a repatriation trust fund
Colin and Eithne Bell, who set up the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust in memory of their son. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Colin Bell usually takes the call at his house in Newry. Somebody, somewhere, thousands of miles away has died, and their family doesn’t know what to do. The Bells do.
They have the finances behind them and, unfortunately, too much experience. “I don’t know if it’s just an Irish thing [but] it was very important for us to get Kevin’s body home,” Bell says of the time, two years ago now, that his son died in New York.
It was the moment the word “repatriation” took centre stage in their lives. “I would have sold the house. Families want their loved ones home as quickly as possible.”
The 26-year-old GAA player was hit by a car in June 2013. Thankfully, getting him back was relatively straightforward. The Bells had family in Manhattan and Kevin’s employers paid the bills.
This isn’t everyone’s experience. Often families, desperate with grief, are unable emotionally or financially to cope with the process.
“When Kevin was killed, my home town in Newry went into a frenzy of fundraising to bring him home. They amassed an incredible amount of money, about £150,000,” Bell says.
“We had this money and we decided that it was best used to help other families.”
The Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust is the first call many people hit by random tragedy make. There are no staff and no salaries. The Bells see themselves simply as a family working to help other families. Siblings Brendan (Kevin’s twin brother), Conor, Ciara, Seán, Eamonn and Maeve are all involved, while friend Damian Ruddy is usually the first point of contact.
A filing cabinet in Colin and his wife Eithne’s bedroom holds the records of harrowing stories. “And all the rest [is done] at the kitchen table. We are proud of the fact that it’s a family-run thing.”
The repatriation process is often complicated by foreign laws and language. While the State, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, offers advice and procedural assistance – making arrangements with local authorities for death certificates, putting people in touch with undertakers and liaising with police – it does not pay the bills or offer ongoing support and comfort.
This week alone, Bell, a recently retired schoolteacher, has helped bring back three people from Australia, to Mayo, Limerick and Cork. Word of the trust is spreading.
After contact from a family, the first thing is to establish the basic facts of what happened, he says. Then it is usually a matter of dealing with foreign undertakers. “Whatever it takes to get them home.”
Sometimes they employ repatriation agencies on the ground. Overall costs vary depending on the country. In Australia it’s usually between $8,000-$16,000; in the US, between $6,000-$12,000.
“Unbelievably we took someone home from India that was far, far cheaper. It just depends. We get an invoice and pay it,” Bell says.
“Generally, if a family gets a phone call – that dreaded phone call – who do they turn to? How do they go about it? It’s not in their experience; they don’t know what to do. The fact that we are there to help alleviate that at a terrible time in their lives is a comfort that we can give.”
The trust is now approaching its 90th repatriation in just two years, with a mission to serve every county on the island of Ireland and all communities. Canada, Australia and the US are more commonly the countries where Irish people die, but the trust has operated all over the world.
Hit by taxi
James Finnegan (27), from Co Monaghan, died in South Korea last December. He was teaching English and saving for a life in Toronto when, on a night out with friends, he was hit by a taxi and killed.
The time difference, coupled with a lack of English-speaking police officers, caused his family difficulty. Colin Bell stepped in.
“I can’t even explain and words wouldn’t do justice to him. It was someone to say: ‘Okay, this is what we have to do’. The process was moving,” says James’s sister Emma.
“He rang me [later] and said James was coming home. Just to be able to go in and say that to my mam and dad and my granny. You could feel the weight in the room lift and a calmness that wasn’t there before.”
The trust is regularly praised for its urgency and compassion. Those behind it ask for nothing in return and yet families are quick to fundraise. No State financing has been sought and the trust has no plans to seek any.
Mammoth charity drive
“That will ensure, I don’t know, maybe 30 or 40 repatriations in the future,” says a grateful Bell, who is aware this circle of goodwill will ultimately prolong the trust.
Michael Douglas from the Greater Shankill community in Belfast also fundraised.
His sister Heather died following a suspected seizure in Baltimore last November, and the family ran into problems when the US undertaker withheld her remains before payment.
“Colin said: ‘Look, there is absolutely no issues, whatever you need,’ ” Douglas says.
“The support this man gives families while this is going on. Even my mum said she doesn’t know how they do it because it must bring back memories [of Kevin].”
But that’s exactly why they do it. It helps them deal with it.
“It’s Kevin’s legacy. It gives us a bit of comfort that some good has come out of his death. And we will continue to do it.”