Last April, Tom Malone collapsed and died on a basketball court in Montpelier, France. A native of Ashland, Ohio, Malone at 24 was one of Europe's leading amateur basketball stars.

"When I got the telegram from our government, I was just absolutely shocked," Colista Malone, Tom's mother, said in an interview, "because it said, 'if you want the body, send $3,000; if you want the ashes, send $1,500; if you local burial, send $1,000; if you want cremation and local burial, send $700.'

"It was just straight out that's the way it is," Mrs. Malone continued "It really upset me because it is a tremendous sum, and they didn't say what it was going to be used for."

Donald Malon, Tom's father, had recently undergone open heart surgery, which had strained the family resources to the limit. Tom's life insurance payments had lapsed and had not been renewed. Friends finally chipped in to pay for the return of Tom's body, but the Malone are bitter about what they regard as insensitivity to their plight by the American government.

"Our foreign service is assumed by most Americans to be at the aid of Americans while abroad . . ." Mrs. Malone said. "His [Tom's] death alone was overwhelming to our whole family, but the crass, inhumate methods of our State Department in arrange ris return merits the wrath of all of us."

But what happened to the Malones is not an isolated example. An average of 19 Americans die overseas every day, although many of them had returned to the land their ethnic origin and are buried by relatives there.

A State Department letter to Rep. Carroll Hubbard (D-Ky.) whose staff aide Lynn Thompson has spent countless hours on the Malone case, said "at least 10 bodies each day [are] returned to the United States, with the cost ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 for each."

It is "ver expensive" for families who their loved ones buried here, with prices and funeral arrangements varying from country to country, said Diana Henshaw, who works in the Office of Special Consular Services of the State Department. Unless the American consulate receives money to pass on to the appropriate authorities, she said, people who die abroad are buried locally in a pauper's grave.

"A lot of people have to understand," Henshaw said in a telephone interview, "that when you leave the United States, your are no longer protected by the United States. You h ave to take what comes."

"We get a lot of staic," added a State Department employee who works in the office of congressional relations and who did not want to be identified by name, "because there are a lot of families who can't afford to have the remains shipped. A lot of people on Social Security who travel can't afford it [shipping the body home]. It's a bad situation and rather a controversial issue."

As far as the Malones are concerned, that's putting it mildly. Six months after Tom's death, they have yet to receive the autopsy report from the French authorities, despite repeated requests, and thus they are not certain what caused his death, although they were told it was a heart attack.

For months the Malones were told that, by signing the proper documents, they could get the autopsy report. But a Nov. 16 letter to Hubbard from the State Department said a French judge declined to furnish it "under provisions of the French penal code."

At 6-foot-11, Tom had been a high school All-American basketball choice. He had an athletic scholarship to the University of Louisville, but after a year there decided to play ball and study medicine in France. His mother said his goal was to practice medicine in Appalachia "where people needed him."

But when the body arrived last May, eight days after he died, there was further distress.

"He was squashed into the coffin," his mother said. "His head was forward on his chest, and it looked to me like his shoulders had been broken. I didn't mention it to my family,. but I was terribly upset. It was just gruesome. This is what we got for our $3,000."

It took many weeks to find out how their $3,000 had spent and to get from the American consulate an inventory of his personal belongings. Finally, they got back about $400 in change and notification that his effects had no value, although it would cost several hundred dollars to ship them home.

The family also discovered, with the assistance of an aide in Sen. John Gleen's (D-Ohio) office, that at least two airlines, TWA and Air France, had offered to ship the body home free as a humanitarian gesture - but were prohibited by Civil Aeronautics Board regulations.

These regulations allow free shipment only if transportation of the body "in some way demonstrably advances an important U.S. interest" or is in some way "unique". One exemption provides for shipment on humanitarian grounds. James Robers, of the office of aviation in the State Department, quoted the revelant department policy:

"If a request does not represent an unusual or critical emergency, it would be disapproved as not being of paramount national interest, in spite of its worthiness."

James Greene, chief of the tariffs section of the CAB, said he was not aware that an airline had requested free shipment for Tom Malone, but if it had, "we probably would have said no." He said that if the CAB approved every "meritorious" case, it would be overrun with requests.

Congress has never appropriated money for the State Department to help in cases where people can't afford to bring a body home. Alan Gise, director of the Office of Special Consular Services, said his office's role is to act as a "go-between" for the foreign authorities and families back home. Consulates notify the next of kin and advise them of the choices available and the cost.

"It's a problem, and we try to handle it as delicately as possible," Gise said. "But there's no way we can help these families get the money . . . If Congress wants to appropriate funds to pay for the shipment back home, that's fine with us, but it's never been that way."

A State Department investigation of the Malone case recently concluded that its consular officers and overseas staff not only "expedited" the return of Tom's remains move than is normally the case from France, but also accomplished it "at a reasonable cost for services rendered."