Bali’s open-air burials endure despite COVID-19 crisis

By Brinkwire

For centuries Bali’s Trunyanese people have left their dead to decompose in the open, the bodies placed in bamboo cages until only the skeletons remain.

It is a ritual they haven’t given up — even as the COVID-19 pandemic upends burial practices worldwide with religious leaders in protective gear, cemetary workers in hazmat suits, and mourners banned or unable to comfort each other because of social-distancing rules.

Across Indonesia funeral workers are now required to wear protective equipment and bodies are laid to rest quickly, all in a bid to prevent the spread of the deadly respiratory disease.

But in Bali local officials claim the novel coronavirus, which has infected at least eight million and killed more than 430,000 globally, has yet to reach the remote north east where the Trunyan live.

“The funeral process remains the same but now we have to wear masks,” explained village head Wayan Arjuna.

Tourists are temporarily banned from visiting for fear of them bringing in the disease, he adds.

“We’re afraid of getting COVID-19,” said Arjuna, but added there was no suggestion of stopping the open-air burial process.

Unlike many in the rest of Hindu-majority Bali, the Trunyanese — who fuse animist beliefs and traditional village customs with their own interpretation of Hinduism — do not bury or cremate their dead.

Instead they let nature take its course as the corpses decay in the open, believing it to be a way to keep a link with the deceased.

“This makes us feel connected to our loved ones,” Arjuna said.

“Like when my grandmother died, I felt like she was close”, he added.

– Skull Island –

It is a short boat ride to their open-air cemetery from tiny Trunyan village, overlooked by volcano Mount Batur and a sprawling Hindu temple carved out of volcanic rock.

There are 11 cages for the corpses — placed close to a fragrant banyan tree that hides the putrid smell of death, locals say.

In one cage, a recently deceased woman could almost have been mistaken for someone sleeping, but her waxy greying complexion revealed the truth.

Nearby, a flesh-less foot poked out of clothing left on the bodies, while a skeletal jaw lay agape in another cage.

“I used to be a little scared working here, but it’s been so long now that I’m used to it,” said veteran guide Wayan Sukarmin, who was spent 20 years showing people the custom on what outsiders have dubbed “Skull Island”.

When AFP visited in February before the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic and travel restrictions were put in place, signs warned visitors to wear appropriate clothing and refrain from using bad language.

Rubber sandals, cigarette packages, toothpaste tubes and pots and pans were scattered around the site, along with baskets filled with coins and crumpled money — all left by mourners for dead relatives to use in the afterlife.

“Locals won’t take anything because it belongs to the dead. That’s our belief,” Sukarmin said.

“I don’t know what the consequences would be if you took something but I believe in karma,” he added.

– Millennia-old custom –

If the cages become full then older corpses are moved to an open ossuary, to make way for new ones.

Then when there is no flesh left, the skulls of the long dead are placed upon a stone altar, until they too crumble back into nature.

Nearby, there is a second cemetery for the unmarried and children, while a third location is for those who died unnatural deaths like murder or passed away from acute illness.

The Bali Aga — or mountain people — who live in these isolated villages, claim to be descendents of the original Balinese and the main temple in Trunyan village dates back to the 10th century according to historical records.

The origin of the custom of open-air burials is subject to debate.

One legend has it that the area’s early inhabitants fought over the prized Banyan tree, so to keep the peace, leaders decided to place the dead there, believing the smell from the corpses would make the spot less attractive.

Another story suggests that the ritual was adopted to avoid angering the rumbling volcano nearby by cremating people.

“There are several versions of the legend so I can’t decide which one is correct,” Arjuna said.

But these open-air burials are now so rooted in the culture that few expect much to change in Trunyan, even as the pandemic ravages the world.

“It’s relatively easier to prevent infections in isolated and faraway places,” said Bali’s virus taskforce chief Dewa Made Indra.

“There aren’t any reported cases in Trunyan. But if that happens then we’ll handle it with special procedures and I think the villagers will understand.”

Complete Article HERE!

More people are dying in American prisons

– here’s how they face the end of their lives

An inmate inside the nursing unit at Louisiana State Penitentiary.

By

Outbreaks of coronavirus have hit prison populations particularly hard – but for many inmates in the U.S., illness and the prospect of dying behind bars already existed.

Advocacy groups have flagged concerns about disease transmission, lack of medical care and deaths in custody as a result of COVID-19. But deaths in custody are not a new phenomena and the process of dying with dignity while incarcerated is complicated.

I have spent a significant amount of time examining correctional health care practices and believe the process of dying in prison is one in which human dignity can be lost.

Prisoners grow old faster and become sick earlier. By 2030 some experts believe that one in three prisoners will be over the age of 55, increasing the likely population of prisoners diagnosed with conditions such as cancer, heart disease, liver and kidney disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report revealed a startling increase in state prisoner mortality. Between 2006 and 2016, the last year for which the study provided data, there were more than 53,000 deaths in custody. More than half of the 3,739 deaths in custody in 2016 resulted from just two illnesses – cancer (30%) and heart disease (28%).

The proportion of prisoners requiring end-of-life care is twice as high as the general population.

An inmate with cancer in Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility’s hospice program.

Outside prison walls, a diagnosis of a terminal illness often means gathering friends and family to repair and restore relationships and thinking about end-of-life options. The coronavirus has, of course, affected who can be present in someone’s last moments, but the terminally ill still have options over their medical care, pain management, who to tell and how, and getting affairs in order. For prisoners, such choices are constrained by state regulation. Prisons are not well-equipped to provide human dignity at the end of life. Terminally ill prisoners have two options: compassionate release or end-of-life care behind bars.

Showing compassion

Offering early release or parole to prisoners diagnosed with debilitating, serious and often terminal illnesses is considered compassionate release. Many in the medical profession consider compassionate release a constitutionally protected right as incarceration of prisoners with debilitating illness undermines medical care and human dignity. Others see compassionate release as a way to reduce correctional health care costs for a population posing little risk to the public. Iowa is the only state without a compassionate release law.

The process of qualifying for compassionate release is complex and statistics on how many succeed are hard to obtain, although we know the numbers are small. Prisoners’ medical conditions, age and time served determine eligibility. But exclusion criteria are extensive. For example, prisoners committing the most serious crimes are excluded. Most states allow stakeholders such as victims, police and court professionals an opportunity to say no.

For the terminally ill, release is often dependent on one’s “death clock” – how many months a medical professional certifies that you likely have before dying. In some states like Kansas and Louisiana, death must be imminent – within 30 to 60 days. In others like Massachusetts and Rhode Island, prisoners with as long as 18 months to live may be released. Applying for compassionate release can be daunting for someone with only months to live. Sadly, some die before they can complete the process.

Even if an inmate does get out, their family may be ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of caring for a dying loved one. In these cases, release may result in transition from one restrictive, isolated, institutional setting to another with care provided by unfamiliar medical professionals.

End-of-life sentence

States must provide medical care to prisoners even though they are being punished for a crime. But the quality of such care is often inadequate. The prisoner does not get to select medical options; care is determined by the state. Death could mean dying alone in a prison cell, in an infirmary with only periodic check-ins from a nurse and prison volunteers or in a hospice unit managed by the state.

Pain management may be restricted by correctional policy and by staff who are reluctant to administer narcotics, such as morphine, to ease suffering out of concern that it could be sold or used illicitly. A recent report in the American Society of Clinical Oncology Post discussed how inadequate care caused unnecessary pain and suffering in prison and concluded: “No one in a wealthy and socially advanced country like the United States should suffer from untreated pain, especially at the end of life.”

While families are allowed to visit terminally ill prisoners, notification of the illness rests with the prisoner – a daunting task if the prisoner has lost touch with relatives over years incarcerated. State prisoners are often confined far from home, so even family members who would like to visit may be hampered by distance and cost. Another challenge for families is the bureaucratic process of prison admission. It is correctional staff at the gates rather than medical professionals determining who gets to visit on any given day.

Access to a mainstream faith leaders and last rites are provided when available. But it is not uncommon to find spiritual practices for the dying prisoner carried out by fellow prisoners.

For terminally ill prisoners “getting one’s affairs in order” includes trying to identify someone in the community willing to take responsibility for their body after death and ownership of personal effects gathered during incarceration. Even if the prisoner identifies a relative willing to take responsibility, there are no guarantees. A relative may be disqualified from handling prisoner affairs. In Ohio, for example, if the prisoner’s loved one is unable to accept the body within two days after notification, the relative may be disqualified.

If no one comes forward, then the prisoner will be buried in an indigent grave and prison officials will dispose of the prisoner’s belongings and monies remaining on prisoner accounts.

Complete Article HERE!

‘Not Priests, Nor Crosses, Nor Bells.’

The Tragic History of How Pandemics Have Disrupted Mourning

By Olivia B. Waxman

On a recent Monday in a New Jersey cemetery, social worker Jane Blumenstein held a laptop with the screen facing a gravesite. A funeral was being held over Zoom, for a woman who died of COVID-19. It was a brilliantly sunny day, so a funeral worker held an umbrella over Blumenstein to shield the laptop from any glare, as synagogue members and family members of the deceased sang and said prayers.

The experience was a “surreal” one for Blumenstein, who is a synagogue liaison at Dorot, a social-services organization that works with the elderly in the New York City area. “I felt really privileged that I could be there and be the person who was allowing this to be transmitted.”

The roughly 20-minute ceremony was one of countless funerals that have taken place over Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. As authorities limit the size of gatherings — and hospitals limit visitors in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus — loved ones have been unable to gather for traditional mourning rituals in the aftermath of a death, so it has become the norm for those who die to do so without their families by their sides, able to say goodbye only virtually, if at all.

The rising death toll has overwhelmed funeral homes and cemeteries, further limiting what is possible. Across religions and around the world, end-of-life traditions have been rendered impossible: stay-at-home orders have stopped Jewish people from sitting shiva together; overwhelmed funeral services have meant Islam’s ritual washing of the body has been skipped; Catholic priests may have had to settle for drive-through funerals, in which the coffin is blessed in front of just a few immediate family members.

The effects of COVID-19 will be felt for many years to come, but those who have lost loved ones are feeling those effects immediately — and, for many, their pain has been exacerbated by the inability to say goodbye. The horror of these rushed goodbyes may be looked back on as a defining feature of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, as the tragic history of pandemics reveals, it is something that disease has forced human beings to struggle with throughout history.

For example, during a 1713 plague epidemic in Prague, a shortage of burial supplies heightened the pain of rushed burials. The emotional toll is evident in a Yiddish poem written shortly after the outbreak, translated for TIME by Joshua Teplitsky, professor of History at Stony Brook University, who is writing a book about this period. At the sight of the dead being carried away day and night, “all weep and wail!,” the poem says. “Who ever heard of such a thing in all his life?” The poem describes people working around the clock and through the Sabbath to saw planks for coffins and sew shrouds.

In one 1719 book, a rabbi recalls counseling a man who was anxious about burying his plague-stricken father in the local cemetery because of a government requirement to coat the body in a chemical to accelerate decomposition. He asked the rabbi if it would be more respectful to bury his father in a forest far outside of the city. The rabbi told the man to follow the rules, likely thinking that “if the body gets buried in the woods, in a very short time, it will be lost, and if it’s in the cemetery, the rabbi is expecting that when this plague passes, visitors will go pray and pay their respects,” says Teplitsky.

Indeed, Teplitsky found a prayer printed circa 1718-1719 that he believes women may have recited while walking around a cemetery years after the epidemic, asking the dead for forgiveness for the lack of a traditional funeral and burial five years earlier.

Centuries later, during the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, Italians were likewise thrust into a world in which funerals had to take place quickly, without ceremonies or religious rites. According to research by Eugenia Tognotti, an expert in public health and quarantine, and a professor of history of medicine and human sciences at the University of Sassari, Italy, many expressed horror at hurried burials in letters to friends and relatives, which are preserved at the Central State Archive in Rome. “The more common lamentations are: ‘Not priests, nor crosses, nor bells’ and ‘one dies like an animal without the consolation of family and friends,’” Tognotti told TIME. Another woman wrote to a relative in Topsfield, Mass., “Here [in Italy] there is a mortal disease named Spanish flu: the sick die in four or more days, a bucket of lime is thrown over the dead bodies, and then four workers take them to the graves like dogs.”

The horror was similar in the U.S., especially in Philadelphia, an epicenter of the pandemic. Columba Voltz was an 8-year-old daughter of a tailor back then, who said that funeral bells tolled all day long as coffins were carried into a local church for a quick blessing and then carried out a few minutes later, according to Catharine Arnold’s Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History. “I was very scared and depressed. I thought the world was coming to an end,” Voltz recounted.

Inside one such house, Anna Milani’s parents laid her 2-year-old brother Harry to rest with what they had on hand:

There were no embalmers, so my parents covered Harry with ice. There were no coffins, just boxes painted white. My parents put Harry in a box. My mother wanted him dressed in white — it had to be white. So she dressed him in a little white suit and put him in the box. You’d think he was sleeping. We all said a little prayer. The priest came over and blessed him. I remember my mother putting in a white piece of cloth over his face; then they closed the box. They put Harry in a little wagon, drawn by a horse. Only my father and uncle were allowed to go to the cemetery. When they got there, two soldiers lowered Harry into a hole.

The same concerns that would have limited attendance at the cemetery when Harry Milani was buried reared their heads more recently during the 2014-2016 epidemic of Ebola, a disease that can be spread through contact with the remains of those it kills. More than 300 cases came from one Sierra Leone funeral, and 60% of Guinea cases came from burial practices, according to the World Health Organization. In Liberia, mass cremations ran counter to traditional burial practices that include close contact with bodies. In Sierra Leone, the dead were put in body bags, sprayed with chlorine and buried in a separate cemetery designated for these victims. As traditional burial practices were curbed in an attempt to stop the spread, the dismay caused by this situation, Tognotti notes, was the same feeling experienced by those Italians of the early 20th century who wrote of the pain of the flu pandemic.

Sometimes, however, victims of epidemics who knew the end was near were actually hoping for a departure from the usual norms of burial and mourning: they wanted their deaths to be used to remind authorities to take these crises seriously.

This idea of the political funeral is particularly associated with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. The activist group ACT UP spread the ashes of victims over the White House lawn, and staged political funerals—open-casket processions, such as the one that brought Mark Lowe Fisher’s body to the Republican National Committee’s NYC headquarters ahead of the 1992 presidential election. “I have decided that when I die I want my fellow AIDS activists to execute my wishes for my political funeral,” Fisher wrote, in a statement entitled Bury Me Furiously. “We are not just spiraling statistics; we are people who have lives, who have purpose, who have lovers, friends and families. And we are dying of a disease maintained by a degree of criminal neglect so enormous that it amounts to genocide.”

The inability to give loved ones proper send-offs is often a hidden cost of these pandemics, Tognotti says, and should not be ignored by officials. Even with modern knowledge about disease transmission, awareness of the reasons for public-health guidance doesn’t lessen the desire to participate in rituals. “The emotional strain of not being able to dispose of the dead promptly, and in accordance with cultural and religious customs, has the power to create social distress and unrest and needs to be considered in contemporary pandemic preparedness planning,” she says.

In this pandemic, a new openness about talking about mental health issues could help. For example, New York state launched a hotline so residents can talk to a therapist for free, and some sites host virtual sessions to discuss grief. Mourners can opt for live-streaming and video conferencing and include more people virtually than before.

For others, these virtual gatherings and brief blessings at the cemetery are placeholders. In March, after Alfredo Visioli, 83, was buried in a cemetery near Cremona in northern Italy, with no relatives allowed to attend and a brief blessing from a priest, his grand-daughter Marta Manfredi told Reuters that, “When all this is over, we will give him a real funeral.”

Complete Article HERE!

Indian Capital’s Crematoriums Overwhelmed With Virus Dead

The Associated Press

When Raj Singh’s 70-year-old mother died from the coronavirus in India’s capital, he took comfort in the prospect of a proper cremation, the funeral rite that Hindus believe releases the soul from the cycle of rebirth.

But instead of chanting sacred Vedic hymns and sprinkling holy water from the Ganges River, all Singh could do was place his mother’s wrapped corpse on a wooden pyre and along with a handful of relatives watch it burn.

“I never thought I would watch my mother go like this,” he said.

Like elsewhere in the world, the novel coronavirus has made honoring the dead in New Delhi a hurried affair, largely devoid of the rituals that give it meaning for mourners. Cemeteries and crematoriums are overwhelmed, so there isn’t much time for ceremony, and even if there were, the government limits the number of people allowed at funerals and those in attendance must maintain distance and wear masks.

“The whole grieving process has been interrupted,” said Pappu, who goes by only one name and lights the funeral pyres at Nigambodh Ghat, New Delhi’s biggest crematorium.

New Delhi has officially reported close to 1,100 deaths from the coronavirus, but cemeteries and crematoriums in the city say the actual number is several hundred higher. Hospital morgues are beyond capacity, and with summer temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Farenheit) some bodies are being kept on thick ice slabs.

“In the beginning, I used to carry only one body. Now, helpers at the morgue will stack as many bodies as they can fit in my van,” said Bhijendra Dhigya, who drives a hearse from one New Delhi hospital to the crematorium.

The spike in deaths in New Delhi comes amid a broader virus surge throughout India, where authorities are reporting some 10,000 new infections each day and more than 300 deaths. Nevertheless, India lifted most of the remaining restrictions from its 10-week lockdown on June 8, the same day it recorded what at the time was its highest single-day death toll from the virus.

On Friday, India’s nationwide caseload overtook Britain to became the fourth highest in the world with 297,535 confirmed cases and 8,498 deaths, according to the Health Ministry. But that is just the known cases. Like elsewhere in the world, the actual number of infections is thought to be far higher for a number of reasons including limited testing.

New Delhi’s health centers are under immense strain and the state government’s deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia, said this week that a state health department model has projected a worst case scenario in which the number of infections in the capital — already at nearly 35,000 — could reach 550,000 by the end of July.

In the worst case scenario, Sisodia said New Delhi would need 80,000 hospital beds, far more than the roughly 9,000 hospital beds currently available for virus patients. The state government is considering taking hotels and sports stadiums to use as field hospitals.

The capital’s Nigambodh Ghat crematorium has handled more than 500 coronavirus cremations since the beginning of the outbreak. When some of its gas-fueled incinerators broke down, there was no one willing to repair them, so the staff reverted to traditional wooden pyres.

Even with working hours extended, there has been no time for individual cremation ceremonies and exhaustive rituals with incense, garlands of marigold and chanting.

The crematorium is now largely quiet except for the distinct snap and crackle of the burning wood and the din of sirens from ambulances bringing more bodies.

The virus has upended Muslim burial rituals in the city as well.

Islamic burials normally involve a simple ceremony. Before the body is laid to rest, it is washed. Those attending the funeral are allowed to have a look at the face of the dead and a prayer is performed, followed by a sermon from a cleric. Then close family members help place the body in a grave.

Now bodies arrive at New Delhi’s largest Muslim cemetery in hearses manned by crews in hazmat suits. Bodies aren’t washed and mourners can’t view them. There are no sermons.

The cemetery has already seen more than 200 burials of COVID-19 victims and with bodies steadily arriving, the grounds are filling fast.

On a recent day at the burial of a 22-year-old man who died of the virus, a backhoe dug a grave as four relatives said a speedy prayer. The body was then lowered into the grave by ropes.

Mohammad Shameem, a gravedigger who now oversees the burials, shook his head in disapproval as the backhoe quickly carved out another grave.

“That’s not how burials should happen,” he said.

Complete Article HERE!

Different faiths, same pain: How to grieve a death in the coronavirus pandemic

A funeral director calls relatives of a COVID-19 victim for a virtual viewing before cremation on May 22, 2020 in New York City.

By , , and

Editor’s note: Every religion has its death rites, communal practices developed over millennia to honor the dead and console the living. Some of these rituals are unique to one faith, but more are shared – a reminder there’s a common path toward healing. Yet COVID-19 is forcing many people to grieve in isolation. We asked three faith leaders and religion scholars for their counsel on mourning during the pandemic.

Honoring the dead and comforting mourners

Rabbi David A. Schuck

Jewish mourning rituals follow the principles of “k’vod hamet,” honoring the deceased, and “nichum aveilim,” comforting mourners.

K’vod hamet includes sitting and praying with the body, ritual washing and burial within two days of death. At a Jewish funeral, family and friends take turns filling the grave with earth – a final act of love. Focus then turns to the family, who return to their home to observe shiva, seven days of intense mourning in which the community provides meals, prayer and comfort.

With these communal rituals inaccessible during the coronavirus pandemic, the trauma of losing loved ones is profound. For synagogues in the center of this pandemic, there’s collective trauma, too. I live in New York, and each week my congregants receive several death notices of longtime friends, but have no avenue to grieve together.

I’m broadcasting funerals online and coordinating shiva visits through Zoom, but technology will never approximate the comfort of a home full of people. During shiva, our community holds us in our grief until we discover ways to move forward alone again.

A family sits for a remote Zoom shiva, the traditional Jewish time of mourning, New Canaan, Connecticut, April 11, 2020.

The first funeral I officiated during the coronavirus pandemic was for a woman who would have wanted blaring trumpets to announce her death and throngs of admirers to come pay tribute. Instead, four people bid her farewell. As I grabbed earth with my fingers and dropped it onto her casket, I whispered an apology for how the world stole the dignity of her final moments.

Finding solace in the psalms of lament

Prof. Gina Hens-Piazza

In normal circumstances, the death of a loved one taxes the heart and mind with a paralyzing numbness. And, in normal circumstances, the traditional rituals of the Catholic faith – the vigil, funeral mass and graveside committal service – give mourners an occasion to honor the memory of the deceased and provide comfort.

A pandemic is not normal circumstances. The absence of these traditional practices compounds the rawness of grief.

In a recent interview with the American Catholic magazine Commonweal, Pope Francis suggested that this is a time “for inventing, for creativity” within the Church, urging Christians to find new ways to express their faith during lockdown.

A necessarily small funeral at a church outside Toulouse, France, during the coronavirus lockdown, April 2020.

I find examples of this creativity in how U.S. Catholic communities are using technology to accommodate gatherings of friends and family for consoling prayer, recitation of the rosary, online memorials and notes of remembrance. Some Catholic parishes have developed ministries of listening and consolation, with volunteers calling the bereaved or visiting online to offer support.

People are also commemorating their dead loved ones at home, lighting candles in their memory or playing their favorite hymns.

And while memorial liturgies have been postponed, families may find some comforting expressions of loss more immediately in biblical texts. The “psalms of lament” – especially Psalms 91, 121 and 130 – are prayers for help in surviving times of great pain. Such recitations provide words to narrate a pain and suffering so devastating it seems to eclipse words.

Healing begins after the homegoing

The Rev. Dr. Rodney Sadler Jr.

For African Americans of the Baptist faith, death is a communal experience. It is in this coming together of family and friends and associates and neighbors that the healing begins.

As the Rev. Dr. Peter Wherry writes in his book “Preaching Funerals,” black Baptists often call funerals “homegoing services,” denoting the fact that the believer once transitioning is in a better state than when here…they have “gone home to live with [the] Lord.”

When someone transitions, despite the clear suffering attendant to a loss, we celebrate their life. This occasions sayings like “trouble don’t last always,” or “we will see X again.”

Though well worn, these cliches seek to comfort the mourning that their loved one is not really dead, but lives on with God.

Since homegoing services can bring together family from across the world, they usually take place a week or more after death to ensure everyone may participate. There is typically a viewing for people to pay their last respects before the service, and afterwards there is usually a parade to the cemetery. Burial comes with its own mini-service.

Mourners after the funeral of the Baptist pastor James Flowers, a victim of COVID-19, at a cemetery in Landover, Maryland, April 13, 2020.

Following that is the repast – a meal expected to feed the guests and to allow for fellowship, storytelling, reuniting with distant loved ones and meeting those known only by name. This, though quite reverent, is also festive. It facilitates the resolution needed to progress after a loss.

I have presided at many such services, though not during the coronavirus pandemic. One piece of advice I would offer to those who mourn now is this: In the coming months, stay in close contact with those who also mourn. Call someone whenever you feel longing for the departed – share a sorrow, a song, a funny anecdote or a recollection of their quirks.

Share your grief. When you feel the urge to cry, let it out. Emotions are best handled not with reason, but by allowing yourself the freedom to feel them fully. And remember, the nadir of your grief is not a curse – it is an indication of how deeply you loved.

Complete Article HERE!

Mexican families struggle to send virus victims back home

By CLAUDIA TORRENS, GISELA SALOMON, and PETER PRENGAMAN

When Crescencio Flores died of coronavirus in New York, his parents back in Mexico asked for one thing: that their son be sent home for burial.

The 56-year-old construction worker had been in the United States for 20 years, regularly sending money to his parents but never going home. Since he died in April, Flores’ brother has been working with American and Mexican authorities to have the body transported to the town of Huehuepiaxtla in the state of Puebla.

So far, his efforts have been in vain. His brother’s embalmed remains are still in a U.S. funeral home.

“I am trying to do this because my parents, 85 and 87 years old, live there,” Francisco Flores said. “They are rooted in their customs. They want a Christian burial for the remains of their son.”

The family’s situation is common. More than a thousand Mexican immigrants have died of the virus in the U.S., according to the Mexican government, and many of their families are struggling to bring dead loved ones home.

Returning a body to another country is never easy, but the coronavirus has added extra bureaucracy and costs, all at a time when many Mexicans have lost jobs in construction, retail and restaurants.

For grieving loved ones on both sides of the border, the challenges are many: overwhelmed funeral homes, delays in paperwork because government offices are not working at full capacity and limited flights.

The process has become so difficult that the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles is encouraging cremation instead of repatriation and burial, said Felipe Carrera, a consular official.

“In a situation like this, we are encouraging our community to have an open mind,” Carrera said, explaining that cremation allows a loved one to return to Mexico in a week or 10 days. He declined to say how long it takes to return bodies. Family members who have opted for cremation say sending ashes home takes several weeks to months.

Cremation is a hard sell for many Mexicans, who are by far the largest immigrant group in America and deeply rooted in Catholicism. They are fiercely proud of their homeland despite problems that pushed them to emigrate, and they carry with them a constant hope to return one day, at the very least upon death.

And because many of them — particularly those who are in the U.S. illegally — have not been home in decades, returning in death is that much more important to their families.

For Mexican Catholics, having the body of a deceased relative is essential to giving them a “good death,” said Dr. Kristin Norget, an anthopology professor at McGill University in Montreal.

“Wakes are really important events in which the person is there, the casket is open, people go and bid that person farewell. They touch them. They kiss them,” Norget said. “It’s that tactile relationship with the body, representing the person.”

For over a month, the family of Javier Morales, 48, and brother Martin Morales, 39, who both died in New Jersey during the first week of April, tried to send the bodies to Santa Catarina Yosonotú, a village in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The brothers had both left the village as teenagers, and family wanted to bury them there.

But after complying with U.S. and Mexican regulations, relatives said they hit roadblocks with health officials in Oaxaca. They eventually gave up and had the brothers created. Now they are working to have the ashes sent back, a process they estimate will take several weeks.

Between the lengthy stay in a funeral home and cremation, the family spent more than $12,000.

“It’s really sad,” said Rogelio Martin, a cousin who was close to the brothers. “We wanted to send them home, but it wasn’t possible.”

Felix Pinzón’s family went through a similar process. Pinzón wanted to send the body of his half-brother, 45-year-old Basilio Juarez, a construction worker, back to Cuautla, a city in the state of Morelos. The consulate warned him that the effort would be fraught, he said.

Juarez’s wife and two children back in Mexico “wanted to see the body,” Pinzón said. “They asked me to bring it back. At first, my niece did not understand that it was not possible. She did not want to accept it.”

Even though he chose cremation, Pinzón won’t be able to send the ashes back any time soon. The cremation cost $2,100, which he had to put on a credit card because as a construction worker he has been out of a job for more than two months.

When Marta Ramos, 63, died in New York, daughter Juanita Ramos, who lives in Bakersfield, California, hoped to fulfill her mom’s last wish, to be buried in Mexico. Since returning her mom’s body would be difficult, Ramos looked into cremation, figuring she could at least send the remains home quickly and have them buried there.

But the funeral home told her that a backlog of bodies meant that her mom would not be cremated for a month. Feeling that was too long to wait, and worried that her mom’s body could be lost, Ramos decided to have her mother buried at a cemetery in New York. Her aunt, Agustina Ramos, 55, died just ahead of her mother and had already been buried there.

For the Flores family, the long wait for Crescencio’s body has been painful, said Gerardo Flores, his oldest brother, who is in Mexico. But relatives feel strongly about bringing him home.

“We believe that in the moment my brother is buried, even as painful as it will be, in this sad moment, it will be the last chapter. We will turn the page. My parents will know where their son is,” he said.

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