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Ex-Cruise Ship Employee Reveals the Secret Code Word for a Passenger Death

This is the surprising sign that things have taken a dark turn.

Cruise ships can house thousands of people for weeks or even months at a time, so it should come as no surprise that on occasion, some passengers will die at sea. What is surprising is what happens after such a tragedy occurs, according to some cruise line insiders. The crew has a set protocol for handling deaths on deck, managing the crisis without drawing attention from other passengers. Sometimes, that involves using covert maneuvers and coded language as the staff works to move a body, says one ex-cruise ship employee.

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Deaths are relatively common on cruise ships.

A cruise ship docked at port.

Cruises tend to draw an older crowd, making it more likely that people will die of age-related natural causes. In fact, a 2018 Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) report found that half of all cruise ship passengers are over the age of 50.

Dara Starr Tucker, a former singer on a cruise entertainment team, said in a recent TikTok post that between four and 10 people die on each voyage, noting that the ships she worked on typically carried between 2,500 and 3,000 passengers at a time. That said, some cruise experts have pushed back on Tucker's estimated death count, saying there are only an average of 200 onboard deaths per year.

If the crew is giving away ice cream, it may mean several people have died.

Happy senior couple having an ice cream on cruise ship deck

Tucker admits that she never personally had to deal with a death onboard during her 10 years working on cruise ships. However, she says that colleagues who did shared their experiences with her during her tenure as a cruise ship entertainer.

She claims that one of the biggest signs that there have been multiple deaths on board is if the crew starts giving away large amounts of free ice cream.

"If the crew suddenly makes a bunch of ice cream available to the passengers—'free cream party!'—it is often because more people have died on the ship than they have room for in the morgue," she says in her post.

Tuckers explains that the morgues on her former ships held around seven bodies at a time. "If more than seven people died on that particular cruise ship, they would have to start moving bodies to the freezer… So they would have to take out ice cream and other frozen goods in order to make room for the extra bodies," she says.

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A former cruise medic corroborates Tucker's claims.

Two Norwegian paramedics in red uniforms are resting near an ambulance parked in a port near a large ship. Theme healthcare and medicine in Norway, Bergen July 28, 2019.

Cory L. Buckner, a former cruise ship medic, shared a reaction video to Tucker's post to back up her claims.

"She's 100 percent correct," Buckner said. "As for deaths, cruises are bucket list destinations. People would be on death's doorstep and still show up to the ship to make sure they cruised."

Sharing photos of his own former cruise ship's emergency room and morgue, Buckner explains how the medical drama might unfold.

"What would happen is if we had someone die on a cruise—which was fairly common—we would do all the interventions we could and then we would bring them to the medical center to be stored until we could get to the next port," he shares. "They'd go in a body bag, and then they'd go in another body bag on top of that one, and then they'd go into one of three trays. If we had four, then that would be full and we'd have to move to an alternate freezer."

Noting that "you can't offload a body in just any port," Buckner adds that it wouldn't have been uncommon to store a body until the end of the voyage. "It depends on the victim's country of origin, their citizenship, and the wishes of the family," he says in the post. "That's why we have so many options as far as storing bodies."

But not everyone agrees.

Cruise ship vacation holiday. Back view of relaxed fashion woman enjoying travel on cruise liner.

However, some cruise experts have tried to debunk Tucker and Buckner's claims and say that storing a body anywhere other than the morgue would be grounds for major legal action.

In fact, one family sued Celebrity Cruises after passenger Robert Jones, 78, died of a heart attack aboard Celebrity Equinox in 2022. The lawsuit alleges that his body decomposed on board after it was inappropriately stored in a cooler while the morgue was out of order.

"The cooler in which Mr. Jones' body was found by the funeral employee had drinks placed outside of the cooler and was not at a temperature which was sufficient nor proper for storing a dead body to prevent decomposition," the complaint said.

So, it seems that there is precedent for Tucker's claims, but it's unlikely that this scenario occurs regularly. Most of the time, an ice cream party on a cruise ship is just another celebration—and perhaps, sometimes, a sign of something much worse.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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