Some immigrants are dying to come to the States. Others are dying to return home.
Before she even saw her dead husband, a few days after he had been shot by an off-duty 5th District police officer on May 18, Belmar Sorto knew that she would send his body back to El Salvador.
Tomá#s Flamenco, a 34-year-old construction worker, had many friends in the United States, but his family was in Central America. His mother wanted to say her goodbyes and bury her son in the village of Julupe.
Many immigrants who live and work in the United States hope to save enough money to return to their homelands to retire and eventually die there, but local funeral homes and their networks give those unable to make it home in this life another option: returning after death to be buried in familiar ground.
Flamenco was just one of the hundreds of immigrants in the D.C. area whose bodies have been sent back to their country of origin. It’s a meticulous and expensive process that includes several layers of paperwork, consular approvals, body preparation, and airline transport.
After identifying Flamenco’s body from a snapshot at the morgue, Sorto and friends began collecting money from co-workers, neighbors, churches, and the Latino community. The cost of the funeral, the official paperwork, and transit came to almost $4,000, including $100 in notarized documents and official seals required by the consulate of El Salvador, $1,250 for a “twenty-gauge steel sealer casket,” and $850 for the airfare.
From the morgue, Flamenco’s body was transported to Bacon Funeral Home on 14th Street NW, a low-cost funeral home patronized by many of the District’s Latinos. After a demonstration sparked by the controversial shooting, a memorial mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on May 25, and a viewing two days later, Flamenco’s remains were kept at the funeral home until arrangements could be made for his return.
In addition to the already difficult details involved in flying Flamenco’s body home and the community’s anger and grief surrounding the shooting, Sorto faced other hurdles.
Because Sorto wanted to accompany her husband’s body to El Salvador, she had to apply for an “advance parole” travel document from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Like thousands of other Central Americans, Sorto has legal permission to live and work in the United States, but her immigration status does not allow her to re-enter the country once she leaves.
The INS initially denied the permit because Sorto and Flamenco had a common-law marriage. But after submitting three notarized letters verifying their union, photographs, an INS Form I-131, and a $95 fee, Sorto finally received authorization to travel.
On Tuesday, May 29, 11 days after he was shot on the corner of Sherman Avenue and Columbia Road NW, Flamenco’s body left the District to travel to its final resting place. For Sorto, who had been with Flamenco since 1993, this would be the first time she would meet his mother, his brothers and sisters, and his five children. Flamenco was buried the next day, after a two-and-half-hour car ride from the airport.
Sorto returned to D.C. with pictures of the body, the second (evangelical Protestant) funeral, and Flamenco’s mother mourning over her son’s casket. “Someday, I will go back to his grave to bring him flowers,” she says, her eyes welling with tears.
Flamenco’s cell-phone bill and the unfinished task of painting their house awaited Sorto upon her return. She also discovered that she had lost her housekeeping job.
As the bills piled up, Sorto realized that she had an additional expense. “He pawned his gold chain a few days before he was killed to send some money for his brother in El Salvador,” she relates. “He told me it was $200, but now the guy at the shop is asking for $300.
“I guess I will have to pay,” Sorto continues, “because it is something really special to me.” The police have yet to return Flamenco’s wallet and the ring that he was wearing when he was shot.
Since it first shipped a corpse to Panama, more than 30 years ago, the De Vol Funeral Home at 2222 Wisconsin Ave. NW has arranged dozens of international body transports. Like a handful of funeral homes in the metropolitan area, it has mastered the bureaucracy and diplomatic dealings involved in offering such services.
De Vol funeral director Michael Patmios says that the requirements for returning corpses to their native land vary widely from country to country and are always changing. At a minimum, he observes, the process requires a death certificate, a “burial transportation” permit, an embalmer’s report, a document from the health department certifying the absence of any contagious diseases, and a varying number of certified copies and official stamps on the documents. Such documentation acts as a “passport” for the body.
Some countries have additional stipulations, such as requiring the use of a hermetically sealed coffin and an outer container with a metal lining. Other nations mandate the presence of a consular official to inspect the body and close the casket, explains Patmios. A shipment to Algeria earlier this year, he says, required the presence of Algerian and French consular personnel, because the body would make a stopover in France on its way home. France requires that special wax seals be placed on all human-remains containers that enter the country.
Once it’s placed in the appropriate container, the body is transported by the funeral home to the airport, where it is weighed. An air bill and tracking number are issued. The funeral home provides a special key to the family member who will accompany the body, so he or she may open the casket when it arrives at its destination.
The arrangements usually take a few days to complete, says Patmios. But depending on whether the family in question has wealth or connections, it is possible for a body to be picked up by the funeral home at 8 a.m. and make a 6 p.m. flight on the same day.
Some consulates help facilitate the process by posting the required information on their Web sites. In the case of Mexico, those seeking information can access the “human remains visa desk” through an automated phone service.
If the deceased is traveling to a country that lacks diplomatic relations with the United States, third-party countries are used. Bodies traveling to Iran stop in the Netherlands, says Patmios, and a recent shipment to Serbia was arranged through consular representatives in Canada.
Though airplane luggage is lost on a daily basis, Patmios reports that, so far, “no one has been misplaced” on the way home to burial. He does, however, recall one corpse that was held up for a week in Detroit by a snowstorm.
“Sometimes, families take some time to decide whether the deceased will be sent back, as older and newer generations have different preferences,” Patmios observes. “Emotions vary, and, in many cases, the situation changes several times from the first call we receive. The overriding principle we have is to be flexible and conform to [the client’s] customs.”
The whole package can range from $5,000 to $8,000, depending on the specific arrangements and final destination. Everything is prepaid, because, as Patmios notes, “We have no recourse after they leave the country.”
It’s not only funeral home directors who testify to the demand for services that allow families to return their deceased loved ones to their home countries.
Gloria Granillo, community relations director for TACA Airlines, says the carrier receives an average of four to five reservations a week for the transport of human remains to Central America. Sometimes, the airline has to start a waiting list. The airline’s cargo department handles the transport of the corpses, and TACA makes every effort to place mourning relatives on the same flight.
TACA’s cargo department has set procedures for the transport of human remains, including restrictions on the number of corpses per flight and the days of the week on which they can travel.
Granillo has already made arrangements for her own transport home after death. “I already have my little plot in Nicaragua,” she says, “even though I have lived here more than 30 years, and all my children are American citizens. It is my last wish, to be buried back home.”
Many of those who are shipped back to their homeland, explains Granillo, have died young or under tragic circumstances. A family’s pain, she observes, can be seen at every step of the journey.
“For many, the shock is devastating, so we try to help them out,” says Granillo. “We have direct flights, and we try to give discounts if several people are traveling to the funeral.”
For some mourning relatives, however, the consideration of airline staffers is scant consolation as they perform their difficult task.
“It was really hard to see my mother transported just like any other cargo, with roughness and a total lack of concern,” explains Maria, a Guatemalan immigrant who did not want her last name used. Her mother died 11 years ago in a Washington hospital, and Maria was chosen by her family to accompany the body. “To them, it was just luggage,” she says, “but for me, it was an overwhelming feeling.”
Maria recalls that even after her mother’s body arrived in Guatemala, not everything went according to plans made back in the States. As the funeral party began to bury the body, they realized that the coffin was too big for the crypt her mother had bought.
“Here in the U.S., the caskets are bigger than in Guatemala,” Maria observes, “so we had to go to the office, and they assigned her a bigger crypt in another part of the cemetery. We thought about putting her in a smaller coffin, but my sister had given strict orders that she was to be buried in the same one she was sent in.”
The custom of sending deceased loved ones home for burial is part of a cycle of grief and healing, says Carlos Silva, a clinical psychologist and coordinator of a Latino bereavement support group in Virginia.
“When we come to this country, we begin a process of mourning,” Silva observes. “We mourn the loss of our homeland. When someone dies here, it helps to close this cycle of mourning if we can send the person back, to be buried in the land that gave them birth.”
Silva believes that the cycle of mourning takes place on both sides of the border. “Once the body is sent, people here keep pictures, letters, and objects that represent the presence of the person. Those who receive the body begin to have closure as they see the reality of death in the inanimate body of their loved one.”
Often, economic, social, and legal pressures complicate the grieving process, especially for immigrant families. Silva says that he has observed relatives residing in two different countries desiring different funeral arrangements, as well as the plight of undocumented immigrants who don’t have the option of traveling to the funeral or grave site.
One local priest says that his solution for families who want to take their loved ones back home is simple.
“I recommend cremation,” says the Rev. José Somoza, a Catholic priest at the Nuestra Reina de las Americas Church at 2200 California St. NW, who has served the area’s Latino community for 32 years. “As Catholics, we believe that the person is with God, not in the corpse.”
Somoza also believes that cremation helps shelter the grieving family from the costs associated with a full-blown funeral and transport service. “The funeral homes exploit the love and sensibilities of people, and they make them feel guilty if they don’t get the most expensive things,” he argues. “I have seen many families go deep into debt to pay these costs, but they do it with much love and sacrifice.”
Despite his frequent offers to keep the ashes at his church until they are ready to travel, Somoza says that most Central Americans insist on a full-body transport. “Generally, people feel more at ease when they send the body back to their country, because they know that there they will have the attention and tender loving care that they won’t have here,” he observes.
Rosario Hernández, a Mexican sociologist who directs the education programs at the Santa Maria Lutheran Church, explains that a longing for the homeland and a lost sense of belonging drive many Latino immigrants to send their deceased back to their birthplace. Her own father, for instance, died in Mexico City and was transported back to his hometown in another part of Mexico to be buried.
Herná#ndez observes that sending a body back is symbolic of the longing many immigrants have to return to their homeland. It provides consolation in the knowledge that, despite the hardships of their lives, their relatives will be able to rest in peace and comfort in death.
“Even if it is just the remains of a person, they know that they will be in a safe and familiar place, protected and surrounded by their ancestors,” she says. CP