Immigrant communities suffer as funeral traditions upended in pandemic

By: - October 22, 2020 5:31 am
(jopstock/Getty Images)

( jopstock/Getty Images)

For many members of the immigrant community, sending the body of a loved one back to their native land is an important part of life in the U.S., but the pandemic has complicated an already complex procedure.

COVID-19 has been affecting mortuary shipping services, and most international flights to and from the U.S. have been suspended for human remains until further notice, according to US Funerals Online

From April to June, families were asked to forego both traditional funeral services and the shipping of bodies  to other countries. Services to certain countries recently resumed in cases where the person died from something other than COVID-19, but rising COVID cases are threatening to shut this down again, according to Leticia Alvarez, organizing director for Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus that causes COVID-19 is not thought to be carried by blood, “but leaked fluids could cause exposure to pathogens.” 

Individuals that died from COVID-19 have to be buried or cremated according to the requirements of the destination.

For many funeral homes, COVID-19 has created a backlog, according to NBC News. Many bodies have been stored away for months until flights resumed. 

The Hispanic community is one of the most gravely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding to that is the pain of not being able to return the bodies of loved ones to their native countries.

“A lot of people were left stuck or chose to cremate and wait with the remains,” said Alvarez. 

For a community that has been severely affected by the pandemic, being unable to properly mourn was the metaphorical final nail on the coffin.

“We didn’t see normal funeral customs. There was a lot of pain from families who weren’t able to traditionally bury their loved ones,” said Alvarez.

When death comes far from home

When Lidia Cazun Perez, 45, died of renal cancer, her family had to figure out how to send her body back to Sayaxche Peten, Guatemala. 

Daughter Angie Yaneth, 15, didn’t have long to grieve.  The family  was told they could return Lidia Perez’s body to Guatemala, since her mother didn’t die of COVID, but much preparation ensued to make sure there was a proper burial. 

“For us in this country, we are only here temporarily. Our family is over there. So we won’t be forgotten, we immigrants won’t be here forever,” said Yaneth, who came to the U.S. at 9-years-old.

We didn't see normal funeral customs (early in the pandemic.) There was a lot of pain from families who weren't able to traditionally bury their loved ones.

– Leticia Alvarez, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition

For families who want to  send deceased loved ones home, the process starts at the embassy for their native country., Each country has its own set of rules and procedures. 

For example, to send a body back to Mexico, Mexico’s consulate in Atlanta requires three forms: a death certificate (apostilled), a transit (or burial) permit and a notarized embalming affidavit (although not required for cremation).

This procedure can be overwhelming for families, but Guatemala’s consulate recommended a local funeral home that would complete the paperwork for Yaneth’s family.

Then came the cost. Yaneth’s family was told the price of sending her mother back to Guatemala was $7,000. This didn’t include the funeral home that would receive the body in Guatemala.

Funeral shipping services can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $15,000, according to Alvarez.

“Imagine the impact of the cost to send a loved one back to another country for their final resting place,” said Alvarez. 

Families often run into trouble when they go with the first funeral home they find. Places with no experience may end up charging thousands of dollars for processing.

“They’ll say ‘we’ll do everything,’ but it won’t be free,” said Alvarez, adding that it’s important for families to do research. 

For families that cremate bodies, the ashes still need to have the proper paperwork filed to send to another country. 

Yaneth’s family raced to cover the funeral costs. Without the means to pay, they asked the community for donations. The heavy cost is often a burden for immigrant families. Families may place donation boxes at local grocery stores to get help from the community. Sometimes consulates may help with funds, but Yaneth was told by the Guatemalan consulate they did not have the means to help the family. 

But the local community came through for Yaneth’s family, and after a few generous donations, Yaneth’s mother was ready to be shipped to Guatemala almost a month after her death. 

While shipping a body, additional problems can still arise. When an immigrant becomes a citizen, they are given the choice to change their name. Immigrants that change their name can then have legal difficulties in sending their body back to their original country. 

“I tell people, if you’re thinking of changing your name, just consider the problems you will face when you die,” said Alvarez.

Shady funeral homes are another issue. Francisca Castro, 47, had been active in the immigrant community helping families send loved ones until an incident last year. While helping a family, the funeral home gave conflicting statements on sending the body. The family travelled to Mexico and back only to have never received the body. 

“I called the consulate, and they told me [the funeral home] never sent in the paperwork,” said Castro. 

“I asked, what do I do to help this family? They said nothing, [the funeral home] has to solve this problem,” she said, adding that she spent several hours travelling from Jackson to Nashville to find where the body was located. 

Thankfully for them,Yaneth’s family had almost no problems.

“The only problem was that she wanted to be buried in the same tomb as my father,” said Yaneth.

For a lot of Latino countries, honoring the dead is a big part of culture. In Guatemala, where citizens celebrate Day of the Dead, families spend Nov. 2 visiting deceased loved ones in their final resting place and offering “ofrendas,” or items that the deceased loved in life. 

For many religious immigrant families, cremation is often an option they won’t consider, and in places with a large indigenous population, like Guatemala, it’s important to have a body to mourn, according to Alvarez. 

“Culturally, the people do not want to cremate. They want to send the whole body. therefore due to religion and beliefs, people send the body,” said Alvarez.

Yaneth is thankful the community provided everything they needed and is currently living with her older brother. She hopes that one day soon she can return to Guatemala to visit her mother.

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.