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Exporting the Dead 

Every year, the corpses of hundreds of immigrants are flown from San Francisco to their home countries.

Wednesday, Jan 21 2009

When Victor Cipriano Lopez collapsed and died in a driveway near the corner of 22nd and Valencia streets at 10:29 on a Sunday night last November, he was already supposed to be far, far away from San Francisco. At the moment a bullet sliced through his chest, Lopez had planned to be speeding in a pickup truck to his native Mexico to marry his waiting fiancée, Magali. Life is all plans when you're just 22.

About half an hour before he was killed, Lopez and his uncle Gerardo were talking at their home in the Mission. Gerardo asked why Lopez hadn't left for Mexico the day before as scheduled. You should get going, Gerardo said, since rain was in the forecast and painting work would be slow. Victor said he wanted to stay one more week to make a bit more money, and then take advantage of the post-Thanksgiving sales to buy a videocamera for filming the wedding.

Near 10 p.m., Gerardo said they should get to bed, but Lopez said he wanted to go out with another uncle to get a phone card at the corner store, call home, and let his dinner settle a bit before going to sleep. "Go on to sleep and I'll turn off the light, " he said, as Gerardo headed upstairs to bed.

Those were the last words Lopez spoke to his uncle.

With a murder investigation pending, Gerardo doesn't want to talk details, but as far as he knows, a man with a gun tried to rob Lopez and shot him once in the chest. Police say the gunman fled in a dark four-door vehicle that sped away down 22nd Street toward Mission, its back door still hanging open. What Gerardo knows for sure is that when he arrived minutes later, after a panicked phone call from his brother, he found his nephew's body lying face up in a driveway, his life already gone.

A homicide investigator at the scene told Gerardo not to worry about money for the funeral. Restitution funds paid by criminals to the state help cover the memorial costs of homicide victims — even those in the country illegally, as Victor Lopez was. After being deported two years ago, he returned last summer, hiring a coyote and crossing the Tijuana border for one last money-earning stint painting houses in the Bay Area with his uncles. Gerardo, like many first-generation immigrants, knew without ever having asked that it made no sense to bury Lopez here.

For Lopez, San Francisco was a paycheck with a nice conversion rate when wired home in pesos. This city was simply the means to an end; it wasn't home. A famous ranchera ballad declares, "Beloved and beautiful Mexico, if I die far from you, have them say I'm sleeping and bring me here."

Like hundreds before him, flown out of San Francisco International Airport each year in perhaps the city's least-talked-about export business, Victor Lopez was going home.

Two mornings later, Cristella Hernandez, the "paperwork girl" at Driscoll's Valencia Street Serra Mortuary, was in her office just three blocks away from the murder scene, flipping through the Chronicle. Her eyes stopped on a tiny news brief on page 3 of the Bay Area section: "Man shot dead in Mission is identified." Victor, 22, on 22nd, she noted, and set the paper aside. Later that day, a funeral arranger who'd just talked with the family told Cristella the news: They had a Victor, 22, killed on 22nd Street. The victim's family wanted to hold a funeral and then send the body back to Mexico. Hernandez clipped the article and slipped it into a file.

What happens to people's bodies after they die in San Francisco is as varied as the ways in which they live. The traditionalists are buried in Colma plots. The Neptune Society faithful sprinkle ashes in the bay from a private yacht, or seal them in urns at the Columbarium. A home funeral movement reclaiming death rituals from the mortuary industry has spread in the North Bay, and environmentalists can bury their unembalmed loved ones in cardboard boxes in Marin. Yet with 36 percent of San Francisco residents born outside the United States, a significant portion of the city sees funeral homes as a mere way station before shipping the deceased to graves in their homelands via commercial airlines.

Hernandez calls them her "shipouts." Mortuary manager Tom Barry prefers the gentler term "international transfers." Yet with some 120 of them a year — top destinations: Mexico, Nicaragua, and El Salvador — Driscoll's is among the city's top exporters of human remains. It is hardly alone: Last year, Sinai Memorial Chapel sent several bodies to Israel from its four Bay Area locations after the corpses were washed by the city's only chevra kadisha, or Jewish holy burial society. Duggan's Funeral Services in the Mission sends home about 50 bodies a year, mostly to Mexico and Central America. The Filipino community favors Valente Marini Perata & Co. in the Excelsior District, with an average of two corpses sent to Manila each month. Other mortuaries say they've shipped remains to China, France, Hong Kong, Italy, Greece, Pakistan, Russia, and Ukraine.

Of course, a large number of immigrants with roots here, such as San Francisco's long-established Chinese community, stay in California after their deaths. Yet those with stronger ties abroad pay for their deceased to make the final journey.

For Lopez' family, the process of sending his body back to Mexico is yet one more irony of a country that lives on immigrant labor while refusing to give some 12 million such workers legal status. Lopez ducked authorities to get into the United States, yet his posthumous return couldn't be more official. While his existence in the United States was never legitimized by documentation, his corpse is sent back with a packet of certified state records sealed with a Hague Convention Apostille.

While repatriating remains is still cheaper than investing in the average $7,000-$15,000 Colma burial plot, death is not cheap, and Driscoll's manager Barry says the number of shipouts has slowed in the tough economy. Holding a funeral here and sending a body to Mexico or Central America costs $6,000 to $7,000. The funeral industry is, after all, an industry — Driscoll's, for example, charges $2,390 for a "shipout service fee" that includes a one-day visitation, but not the airfare or casket. Yet Barry says a shipout is less lucrative than a local burial because of the staff hours required for the paperwork.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley


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