Last summer, after an elderly passenger died of a heart condition during a Celebrity Cruises vacation to the Caribbean, the cruise line allegedly advised his wife of two options: allow her husband's remains to be removed from the ship in nearby Puerto Rico, where she would have to stay alone for days pending a possible autopsy, or leave his body with the ship's morgue until the vessel arrived back in the United States.
In hopes of returning to her family as soon as possible, the woman, 78, chose the latter option, trusting that the ship would safely transport her husband of 55 years back to their home state of Florida to be prepared for funeral services.
Six grueling days at sea passed as the Celebrity Equinox chugged back to its port in Fort Lauderdale. When the ship arrived on August 21, 2022, a local funeral home employee came aboard to retrieve the body.
But it was nowhere to be found in the morgue.
Instead, according to a recently filed lawsuit, the corpse was located on a pallet on the floor of a beverage cooler, left to turn green and deteriorate into an advanced state of decay after the onboard morgue went out of order.
The funeral employee saw drinks placed outside of the ice box turned mortuary, the complaint claims.
"Knowing their husband and father was callously and casually left in a beverage cooler, stripping him of his dignity in the sacred time just after his passing," the family's lawsuit states, "the ideas and mental images will surely never leave the memory of the plaintiffs."
Filed in Florida's Southern District federal court on behalf of the man's wife, two daughters, and three grandchildren, the lawsuit demands at least a million dollars in damages. The family members are Florida residents, with the exception of one granddaughter, who is from Texas. They're represented by Catherine Saylor and Jacob Munch at the law firm of Munch & Munch in Tampa.
Celebrity Cruises has not responded to a request for comment.
The lawsuit claims the indignity could have been avoided if the cruise ship staff had monitored the condition of the morgue before advising the wife on her options in handling her husband's remains. Had she known the morgue was not in working order, she would have ensured her husband's body was taken off the ship in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
According to the complaint, the staff dissuaded the grieving woman from removing the body in Puerto Rico by telling her there was no guarantee as to when it would be released to Florida and warning her that there was a "50/50 chance" the San Juan coroner's office would take possession of her husband's remains for an autopsy.
"Celebrity's actions and inactions with regard to [the] body were extremely indifferent to his passing, his dignity, and his family, friends, and community's loss, and showed an entire want of care for the safety of his remains," the family alleges.
Human bodies can typically be stored in a morgue for weeks to months without decomposing, as the lawsuit notes. They must be stored at near-freezing temperatures to halt the decomposition process.
It was clear that the man's body was stored at an improper temperature in the drink cooler aboard the Equinox given its advanced state of decomposition, the lawsuit alleges.
"The funeral home staff in Ft. Lauderdale was unable to salvage his remains enough to be suitable for an open casket wake and funeral, which was a long-standing family custom and was what his family had desired," the lawsuit states.
Most contemporary cruise ships are legally required to have morgues on board, according to a 2018 Thrillist report on cruise-ship deaths. Though regulations vary, the report indicates that some large cruise vessels maintain a morgue with enough room for as many as ten bodies, along with a stock of body bags.
According to the complaint, Celebrity Cruises has had at least 37 deaths aboard its ships since 2001.
"Having had to store many dead bodies on their ships, and even being required to have a working morgue on board its ship... Celebrity certainly knew of the potential need for a working morgue on the ship, and the temperatures at which dead bodies need to be stored to stop the decomposition process from occurring," the lawsuit states.