Exporting the Dead

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

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.

Cristella Hernandez (right) picks up burial transfer documents for Lopez from the Mexican Consulate.
Paul Trapani
Cristella Hernandez (right) picks up burial transfer documents for Lopez from the Mexican Consulate.
Paul Trapani

Perhaps the sector that most benefits is the airline industry. China Airlines cargo sales rep Robert Mendez says only silver, gold, and artworks cost more per kilogram to send by air than human remains. With an average cost of $900 to $1,500 to send a body to Mexico, airlines charge far more for dead people than live ones.

Yet there is help to pay the costs. While the streets of San Francisco can be lethal for young Latino males like Lopez — Hispanics comprised 27 percent of the male homicide victims in 2008 — the state is good to their families. California's Victim Compensation Program pays up to $7,500 for funeral and burial costs from criminal restitution funds if the family cooperates in the investigation and prosecution of the homicide. In San Francisco alone, that added up to roughly $457,000 for the families of 95 homicide victims last year, eight of whom were buried abroad, according to the district attorney's office.

But in cases other than homicides, tension arises over who will foot the bill. In 2003, Pedro Tuyub, then-editor of the Mission newspaper El Tecolote, railed against the Mexican Consulate in his paper for offering only $300 to help repatriate the body of a fellow Yucatecan who died of dehydration just hours after arriving in San Francisco after crossing the border.

"At that time, Mexicans were sending $14 billion to Mexico and the president was calling us national heroes for sending the money," says Tuyub, now the editor of the Mission Dispatch. "But when we died it was, 'Oops, another Mexican just died.'"

With growing pressure from immigrants in the United States, the Mexican Congress has allocated more money in recent years for the repatriation of natives who die abroad. The total tab added up to more than $4.4 million to send back 5,622 bodies in 2008. The Mexican Consulate in San Francisco — which handles the paperwork for sending bodies from 13 Northern California counties and Hawaii — aided 48 of the 214 repatriation cases last year, with costs ranging from $500 to $5,000. And the Mexican government will now pay the entire cost of returning the remains of people who've died while attempting to cross the border.

A small industry has arisen to help people pay to repatriate their deceased. A Mexico City–based insurance broker started Servicios Especiales Profesionales USA, Inc., outside Los Angeles in 2004; it offers to cover the costs of repatriation to anywhere in Latin America for one-time payments of $20 for a year, or up to $75 for five years. Advertising its services to Latin American consulates across the country, the company says it has several thousand clients in the Bay Area and has paid the costs of more than 300 repatriations nationwide.

"If people don't take responsibility of their own expenses, all the rest, including you and I and the president, pay for the funeral services for that person," company spokesman Jose Luis Ontañon says. The service "costs as much as a six-pack. There's no excuse to not have the money to pay for this."

But insurance agents in the Mission say it's not easy to sell Latinos on the need to plan for death. "Latinos think it's bad luck," says Ruben Noboa, who sells preneed insurance for Driscoll's. "They think that that's calling death and then death is going to knock on your door." Undocumented workers can't get life insurance policies, since they must have Social Security numbers, says Allstate agent Lupe Guevara, and those who do have documents don't want insurance: "I would say 80 percent of clients would say, 'Why would I want to pay life insurance and have [my wife] enjoy my benefits with another man?' That's a very typical saying. That just happened on Monday, as a matter of fact."

Without insurance or government assistance, most bereaved families are left to cobble together money from the most immediate source of sympathy — other immigrants. Tuyub says he has often gone around "like an army" with other Yucatecans to hit up their fellow countrymen in Mission restaurants or cantinas for donations. They raised $19,000 for the family of the man who died of dehydration.

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