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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