STS Quarterly Issue 6: June 2019

Human Remains in the Sky (Part One)

By Dave McComb and the Eagle’s Wings Air Team

Safely operating an airfield or major airport is a complex job on its own. When you consider that human remains are often among the precious cargo entrusted into airlines’ care, the complexities multiply. How do they deal with a family’s loved one between the time one funeral home drops off the deceased and the other picks up?

In this STS Quarterly series, Eagle’s Wings Air helps you explore the process behind the scenes at the airport to better understand the process of shipping human remains.

The Arm-Strong Casket Lift

Did you know it’s prohibited to use a forklift to transport human remains? The potential for damage to the casket or puncturing an airtight container (among other moving mishaps) make this particular piece of equipment a no-go for loading a family’s loved one.

The airport or cargo station may use a conveyor “belt loader” or a scissor lift to move casketed remains, but you’re very familiar with a common method of loading cargo for smaller airfields or aircraft...it’s you! If equipment is lacking or out of service, old-fashioned muscle power may be needed, A.K.A. “the Arm-strong casket lift.”

This is a good reason to call ahead and communicate with the cargo terminal so that they have adequate staff to load and unload the deceased and so you know whether your staff will be needed to help lift and move the container.

Code HR

For all the time you spend thinking about death care, you’ve probably been on several flights with human remains and had no idea. While pilots are provided a manifest of all cargo onboard their aircraft including any human remains, it’s at their discretion whether to notify passengers.

If you’ve ever listened in on the aircraft radio chatter and caught a reference to “HR” that’s often code for “human remains” and indicates the presence of somebody’s loved one on the flight. They may be accompanied by family or other escorts in the cabin.

Typically, out of respect for the family's privacy, no one is ever made the wiser. But you may hear an announcement or see official vehicles meeting the flight, especially if the deceased was active duty military or a first responder. Passengers may be asked to wait while the honor guard and family meet the deceased on the tarmac.

You may want to ask the family about their wishes and take steps to notify the airline if the family does not want any additional attention.

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Selected has partnered with Eagle’s Wings Air to help members provide each other and their families the very best in transfer services. When a family’s loved one needs transport on a flight originating in the United States, click here to book air transport with the experts at Eagle's Wings Air.

Need a funeral home you can trust to help you with embalming, cremation or ground transport? Click here to find one of the more than 280 Selected member firms who are STS Agents.


To locate fellow STS firms for transfer assistance and for more helpful information, visit the Selected Transfer Services page.

Have a best practice or a helpful transfer story to share for a future issue of STS Quarterly? Email Dan Beavers or call 800-323-4219.