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Dealing with a Death in Turkey

This guide was written by Başak Yıldız Orkun, Managing Partner at Orkun & Orkun (info@orkunorkun.com) in collaboration with Guides.Global (office@guides.global).

It was written on 20 June 2017. The law and practice in Turkey change all the time. Our guides are updated as frequently as possible - typically every three years - but may be out of date.

Our guides are prepared by professionals from many countries. They are, of necessity, both brief and general and can take no account of your personal circumstances. They are intended to be a good introduction to the subject BUT ARE NO SUBSTITUTE FOR PROPER PROFESSIONAL ADVICE, which our contributors will usually be happy to provide upon request.

The advice and opinions contained in the guides are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Guides.Global.

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The scope of this guide

This guide is about dealing with somebody's death in Turkey. It takes you through what to do in the immediate aftermath, the different options, funerals, repatriation and local customs.

Introduction

Dealing with the death of a loved one is always distressing. It can also be stressful, time consuming and expensive. The stress, time factor, and expense are often worsened by distance, language, and differences in procedure.

If you need this guide, it's probably too late to say that it's much better to reduce all these problems by way of forward planning. This includes speaking to the person concerned as to their wishes and speaking to a local funeral director as to what can and cannot be done and the likely cost involved.

This is particularly important as many foreigners still put in their wills or tell their relatives that they wish to be buried ‘back home’. It is my belief that many would change their minds if they knew the cost and trouble that this wish causes their loved ones.

Finally, in this guide, we realise that we use some terms - such as deceased and body - which can sound a little callous. No disrespect is intended but there are few expressions that meet the right balance between brevity and respect.

The good news is that dealing with a death in Turkey is always far more straightforward than it is in most countries.

Preparation for your own death

First off, tell your family what you want: your wishes at to burial or cremation, whether you want the family to be present etc. Preferably, do this in writing so there are no misunderstandings and the recipient can show the document to doubting relatives. This saves a lot of anguish.

Make a Will – possibly more than one – and tell your family where it is. Better still, send at least one of them a copy of it.

It is also very helpful if your friends and your family know the whereabouts of certain key documents.

As far as the death itself is concerned, these will include:

There are other documents - many documents - that are needed to deal with the inheritance of your assets. See our Guide to Inheritance in Turkey for details. It is helpful if they are kept together and the whereabouts of the documents is known to your family, your local lawyer and a trusted local friend.

I refer to the location of documents being known by a local friend because, in many cases, all your family and other relatives will be living hundreds or thousands of miles away and unable to act quickly at the time of your death.

Many people are nervous about entrusting information such as this to friends - even friends they have known for a long time. In this case, the best thing to do is usually to tell your lawyer where the documents are stored. Then tell your family that you have done so and give them his contact details.

You should also give the lawyer (or the friend) the means to get access to the house when needed. This doesn't normally involve giving them a key but, more often, telling them which of your friends and neighbours has the key and giving the friend or the lawyer a letter to those neighbours asking them to assist him and to permit him to remove the documents.

After a death: action to take in Turkey

Death at home

If the person who has died has been receiving medical treatment, it is customary for you to call out your family doctor to certify the death and initiate the steps needed to deal with the body. If the doctor does attend, he will complete the necessary paperwork and issue an officially stamped death certificate (ölüm belgesi ).

This is, however, not strictly needed and an alternative arrangement can sometimes be quicker and more straightforward.

This alternative is to call out the Municipal Funeral Department (Belediye Cenaze Isleri).

The Municipal Funeral Department performs an absolutely central task when dealing with a death in Turkey.

As the name suggests, the Municipal Funeral Department is a part of the municipal government, and is based in your local town hall. They are paid for out of the taxes that you pay.

Once they have been called, the Municipal Funeral Department will attend very quickly: often within a few minutes.

If a doctor has not already been called, they will arrange for a doctor to attend and certify the death. This will not necessarily be your normal doctor.

When a doctor attends – whether it is your own doctor or the doctor arranged by the Municipal Funeral Department – the doctor will have to decide (based upon the facts of the case and a brief examination of the body) whether there is anything suspicious about the death. If there is, he will involve the police and the prosecutor. See below.

Assuming everything about the death appears to be routine and in order, the Funeral Department will arrange for the removal of the body to a local mosque. The body is taken to the mosque in all cases, even if the person who died was not Muslim.

The body will be washed. Depending on where you are, the body will be washed in a special room at the local cemetery (usually by professional body washers) or in the house or the garden of the house where the person died (either by professional body washers or by members of the family).

Various Islamic rituals are usually performed in relation to the body, but these can be dispensed with if the family indicates that the person who died was not a Muslim.

At the mosque – unless an alternative is agreed, or the washing has already taken place – the body will be washed and wrapped in a white shroud. This is in accordance with Islamic tradition. Professional washers (male and female) are, again, usually employed for this purpose.

Whilst all this is happening, the Municipal Funeral Department will complete all of the paperwork that is necessary to recognise the death so that the body can be released for funeral.

In addition to making the arrangements for the funeral, the Municipal Funeral Department will also take care of some of the practical issues arising out of a funeral. For example, they can arrange for the funeral to be announced (often by the hodja – the man responsible for making these announcements - and the mosque’s public address system) and for food, chairs and a funeral car to be provided.

The Municipal Funeral Department is not permitted to make these arrangements for foreigners unless there is evidence that they have converted to Islam. In many cases, they may never have come across a deceased foreigner before and so can be uncertain as to what needs to be done.

The reason the Municipal Funeral Department takes care of all of these steps is largely to do with time. Funerals in Turkey (and other hot Islamic countries) tend to take place very quickly for both religious and practical reasons. Often, if a person died in the morning, the funeral will take place after prayers that afternoon. If he or she dies in the afternoon, the body will usually remain in the mosque overnight and be buried the following morning. This works because, until recently, most of the time the deceased’s family lived close to the deceased.

Increasingly, even for Turkish people, you will find that families can be widely dispersed throughout Turkey – though with the majority still in one place – and so it is acceptable for the ceremony to be delayed to allow relatives to arrive from distant parts of the country. However, this delay will seldom be more than a day or two.

Of course, in the case of many foreigners, the relatives might live on the other side of the world and so it might be necessary to delay the funeral for several days or several weeks. This can be arranged, but the body will have to be released from the care of the Municipal Funeral Department. In the parts of Turkey where there are significant numbers of foreigners, there are likely to be specialist funeral services who can provide this facility and deal with whatever other arrangements (such as a non-Islamic religious funeral) might be requested.

The funeral, whenever it takes place, will normally be attended by the deceased’s family and neighbours, who will eat together after the funeral formalities have taken place.

Following the funeral, there is a period of mourning by the deceased’s relatives. During this period, if there is a widow/widower, they will generally not be left alone.

Within local Turkish tradition, partly rooted in Islam and partly rooted in antiquity, there are certain special days when it comes to the mourning of the deceased. The third, seventh, 40th and 52nd day after the person dies are particularly important.

Death in a hospital

If the deceased died in hospital, then it will be the hospital doctor who certifies death and decides whether there are any circumstances that justify the involvement of the police and prosecutor. They will then issue a hospital death certificate and report the death to the Municipal Funeral Department.

From that point onwards, the procedure is the same as if the person had died at home.

Death elsewhere

Sometimes, someone will die elsewhere: for example, at the scene of a car crash or in a restaurant.

In these cases, the police will inevitably be called and the body will be taken to a hospital.

From there on, the process is the same as if the death had taken place in a hospital.

Reporting a death to the authorities

It is the duty of the doctor who attends after a person has died to consider whether the death needs to be reported to the authorities. This will usually happen if the deceased died ‘out of the blue’: in other words, without there being any illness leading up for the death. It will also happen if the deceased died as a result of accident or violence.

It’s important to understand that the fact that the doctor refers the death to the prosecutor’s office does not mean that he suspects foul play. It is merely because the cause of the death is not superficially obvious and so further investigation is required.

If the doctor calls in the public prosecutor, they will attend with the police and carry out an inspection of the deceased’s body. Using their experience, they will then decide either to release the body immediately for burial or to arrange for a post-mortem/autopsy to help them establish the cause of death. If, after the autopsy, the prosecutor is satisfied that everything is in order, the prosecutor will release the body and the normal procedure will then be followed.

The funeral director

For a Muslim, there is really no such thing as a private funeral service or director but, with the increasing number of non-Muslim foreigners living in Turkey, specialist service have sprung up to deal with their wishes and needs.

If you wish to have a non-Islamic religious funeral, you will need to use the services of such a company. The Municipal Funeral Department will probably be able to point you in the direction of one that is suitable.

It is then necessary to contact them urgently to ask them to make the necessary arrangements. From that point onwards, they will liaise with the Municipal Funeral Department and do what is needed.

However, they will need some directions and guidance from you.

The funeral director will need to receive the following documents and information:

When you have a meeting with the funeral service, you need to be prepared to give the funeral director instructions as to what needs to be done. The questions will include the following list:

Work out the answers to these questions before your appointment with the funeral director. This will save time and make the meeting less stressful for you. You can download a printable copy of the checklist here.

These are a lot of things that need to be decided quite quickly and it is obviously helpful if the family have thought about these issues in advance and if they and/or the deceased have told the friend what is required.

Cemeteries in Turkey

In Turkey, the norm is for a person to be buried rather than cremated. Municipalities each have one or more burial grounds. These are very inexpensive when used as part of the municipal funeral facilities. However, they cannot be used for non-Muslim burials.

In places where there are significant numbers of foreigners, there is usually a minorities graveyard. Your specialist funeral service will make arrangements with that graveyard and reserve a plot for the burial.

Such minority graves tend to be expensive: certainly far more expensive than a regular municipal grave. All in all, a funeral service for a foreigner (including the services of the funeral company and the provision of the grave) can cost from TRY2,000-10,000 (US$550- US$3,000;  €500-€2,500; £400-£2,000).

Crematoriums in Turkey

In theory, it should be possible for a cremation to be arranged instead, but very few places will have the facilities to carry this out.

Death certificates (ölüm belgesi) in Turkey

As already explained, the death certificate can be issued by either a hospital doctor or (if the death did not occur at a hospital) a municipal doctor.

If the public prosecutor becomes involved, then the death certificate will be issued by the court.

Unlike in many countries, the death certificate is only a certificate that the person has died. It is not sufficient to arrange a funeral.

The death certificate must be filed with the Population Registry Office (Nüfus Müdürlüğü) within ten days.

Burial licences in Turkey

In order for a body to be buried, a licence is required. This is issued by the municipal doctor upon production of a valid death certificate and completion of a certain amount of paperwork. This paperwork can be dealt with either by the family or friends of the deceased or by a funeral service, if one is being used. If you’re going to use a funeral service, it makes a lot more sense for them to deal with the paperwork, as the burial of foreigners is a relatively rare occurrence.

Repatriation of a body from Turkey

Many foreigners living in Turkey will say to their friends and relatives and/or put in their Will that they would like their body to be ‘taken home’.

This can be done, but it is usually both complicated and expensive. I suspect that if the person realised how complicated and expensive it was going to become, they would express their preference to be buried in Turkey.

Even if the person does say in their Will that they wish to be taken home, it is only an expression of their wish and not legally binding – so the heirs could decide to proceed by way of a burial in Turkey in any event. Unfortunately, many people are uncomfortable about ignoring the deceased’s wishes in this way.

If you wish to repatriate the body, you will need to tell the specialist funeral service that you are using.

It is necessary to involve the consulate of the country of which the deceased was a national, as they will have to produce some paperwork.

The formal part of the process starts with making an application to the Municipal Funeral Department. This must be accompanied by an official request by the consulate to remove the body from Turkey.

Before you can make this application, the body must be ready to travel. There are detailed national and international requirements as to the nature of the coffin used and various other technical issues. The coffin itself has to be of a special type and completely sealed. Unless it meets the specification, the customs officer will not grant the export certificate and the airline will not allow the coffin to go into its hold.

Turkish Airlines carry bodies only as cargo. For international flights, human remains transported inside a coffin must be enclosed in a sackcloth or canvas winding sheet and a zinc, lead coffin or sealed solid wooden coffin must be used. For domestic flights, human remains must be transported inside an impermeable solid wooden coffin, with secured cover and without any cracks or breaks.

The Municipal Funeral Department will then issue a licence permitting the body to travel and, at the same time, a burial licence.

The coffin is then sealed.

The municipal doctor then issues yet another piece of paper – an export permit.

An officer from the customs department must then examine the sealed coffin in the presence of the municipal doctor and issue a customs clearance permitting the coffin to pass through customs and the body to be sent home.

Once you arrive back in your own country, you will of course have to go through the relevant formalities to import the body into that country and then deal with it by way of cremation or burial. In order to do that, you will, at the very least, need to have a certified copy of the original Turkish death certificate translated into your own language.

You are likely also to have to register the death with the authorities where the body is to be buried. In order to obtain the death certificate in your own country, it may well be necessary for the coroner to issue a clearance. Sometimes, depending upon the circumstances surrounding the death, the coroner might want to hold an enquiry (inquest) before consenting to the burial or cremation.

As already mentioned, doing all this is expensive. The cost of transportation of the body is likely to be at least US$3,000/€2,500/£2,000 and can be well in excess of that amount. The cost of the funeral service companies in the two countries can easily be twice that amount.

Repatriation of the deceased’s ashes from Turkey

This is a cheaper and less complicated process.

Some airlines give passengers the option of checking cremated remains as carry on luggage or as checked baggage (just like a suitcase). If carrying the ashes onto the plane, they are subject to screening and must pass through the X-ray machine.

Other airlines require cremated ashes to be sent only via cargo. Contacting the airline will help ensure that you are not held up for unnecessary and preventable reasons.

You may also be able to send them by a courier company. Usually the smaller ones are the most flexible. DHL, UPS & Fedex do NOT accept ashes. You must declare what is in the package.

Other people who should be informed

Local people to be informed

International people to be informed

The international equivalents in the deceased's home country of all the above agencies and organisations are likely to need copies of the death certificates

It's also a good idea to keep a copy of the death certificate for yourself.

Action to take ‘back home’ when someone dies in Turkey

Notifying the consulate

The first thing you should do, though it's not strictly at home, is notify your consulate in Turkey about the death. They will then remove the deceased from the list of nationals who they know to live locally and can be useful in other ways. Doing this might also serve as an official notification of the death to the government of your country.

To do this, you will need to have a copy of the local death certificate.

There is no legal requirement to do this, unless you want to repatriate the body.

Surrendering passport

In most countries, there is a legal requirement that you surrender the deceased's passport to the local consulate or to the passport office back home.

Banks and investments

Any institutions in which the deceased held money or investments will need to be notified so that the estate can get its hands on those assets.

Reporting the death to the coroner ‘back home’

The requirements here vary from country to country but, in many countries if you repatriate the body or (in some cases) the ashes the coroner back home will have the legal responsibility of ‘signing off’ the death and, if it's necessary to do so, of holding an inquest.

Insurance

Check the deceased's medical and, if appropriate, travel and insurance policies. You may find that some or all the costs of dealing with the death are covered by those policies.

Wills & inheritance in Turkey

See our guides to Wills in Turkey and Inheritance in Turkey.

Conclusion

In this guide, I have talked about “you” doing various things. Self-evidently, if the deceased was living in Izmir and you are living in Chicago, it is going to be impossible for you to deal personally with all of these things within the very short time frames required. In practical terms, therefore, you will have to delegate these tasks to someone local.

Usually, this person will be a friend of the deceased or – if there is one – a local family member. They will often have been asked by the deceased to perform the task. It is helpful if you know that this has happened!

All in all, dealing with a death in Turkey – if you want to do something other than what is normal and arranged by the Municipal Funeral Department – requires quick action and that, in turn, is helped by a bit of planning and preparation.

Other guides of interest

 Description Link 
Turkey Country Guide
Essential facts and figures about Turkey
Click to see this guide
Wills in Turkey
How to make a Will in Turkey, and whether it's necessary for you
Click to see this guide
Inheritance in Turkey
The laws surrounding inheritance in Turkey, and how best to deal with one in the country
Click to see this guide
Checklist: Funeral Director
Downloadable PDF with questions to answer before you see a funeral director
Click to see this guide

Readers' Comments

 

Further information?

I hope you have found this guide useful. If you need any further help, please contact me.

Başak Yıldız Orkun

20 June 2017


 

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