Exporting the Dead

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

Lopez returned to San Francisco last summer. This time, Gerardo says Lopez came straight home from painting jobs, preferring to watch Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and The Magnificent Seven with Gerardo and his kids rather than hanging out with his old troublemaking friends. The Mission suffered a rash of homicides in late summer, but Lopez largely dismissed the violence as something that happened only between gang members, not people who stayed out of it. You can't go out in the street much, he told his mom in their phone conversations. Mostly, he was eager to return to Mexico and marry Magali.

In late November, the San Francisco medical examiner traced the path of a single bullet through Lopez' chest. Driscoll's staff collected Lopez' corpse in a body bag and embalmed him, a standard requirement when shipping the deceased to another country. The embalmer's apprentice dressed him in the black tux Gerardo's wife had bought at Serramonte Center, so that his fiancée could see him the way he was supposed to return to her: as her groom. The apprentice lowered Lopez into the $2,595 "Paradise" white metal casket with silver angels inset in the corners, which Gerardo had chosen earlier that week.

For the funeral, red roses cascaded down the casket, placed between two gold columns in the chapel. A deacon led the mourners in murmuring a litany of Hail Marys for Lopez' soul. Gerardo placed a rose on his nephew's chest, and a funeral attendant lowered the casket's lid. As the family filed out, the casket was left behind to await its Wednesday midnight flight.

Perez’ family collected money at Mission businesses to cover her funeral costs.
Lauren Smiley
Perez’ family collected money at Mission businesses to cover her funeral costs.
Lauren Smiley

Cristella Hernandez of Driscoll's now had a deadline. At 9:00 on the Monday morning after the funeral, she hopped into the funeral home's green Ford Windstar body removal van and blazed downtown to start her rounds. The city health department for the death certificate; the county clerk's office to get it certified; the secretary of state to seal the death certificate with an Apostille; and the embalmer's letter stating that Lopez had been embalmed and that the casket contained only his remains. Skipping to the front of the long line at the Mexican Consulate, she turned in the documents for approval.

A Mission-raised Latina who happened into her job nine years ago, Hernandez is the answer to critics who say the funeral industry is an impersonal business. Death has become her fascination. She clips articles about homicides and obituaries in the newspapers, not because it's required for her job, but "because I'm curious and because I care." She says she can't relax until she gets the paperwork approved, so the deceased can "lay their head down" in Latin America. That can often mean communicating in sign language at some consulates, since she doesn't speak much Spanish. She hopes to pick up her own passport one of these days, so she can visit Mexico for the Day of the Dead.

"The dead haunt me," she says. "They want to go home, back to their family. ... It's just so sad. They're children when they're here, and they're still children when they go home and they're six feet under."

Back at the mortuary, she walked into the chilly, dark chapel where Lopez' casket lay. This was her last stop, a moment to pay her respects or sometimes say a prayer.

She pushed open the lid and peered in on a young man with a thick mustache and eyebrows, full cheeks and lips, a cross tucked into the crook of his arm, his dark skin just slightly gray.

Hernandez clasped her hand to her mouth and shook her head. "Oh, what a pretty boy," she said, and the tears started as if on command. "Oh, how sad. You're gonna break your mama's heart."

On the day Lopez' body was to be flown back to Mexico, the casket has been locked and set into a plywood pallet known in the industry as a shipping tray. An embalmer had slathered a thick cold cream on Lopez' face and hands to keep the skin hydrated during the journey. Quilted cotton was pressed onto the cream, and plastic sheaths were slipped behind his head and over his chest like a bib, to prevent staining of his suit or the casket's lining. He was ready for departure.

Driscoll's manager Tom Barry rolled the box out the funeral home's back door into the alley to heave it into the funeral home van, with its front seats pushed all the way forward to make room.

Funeral planner and unofficial deliveryman Melvin Peña steered the van down 25th Street and merged onto 101-South toward the airport. He veered onto McDonnell Road, a row of cargo offices in the shadow of 101, and backed up to Northwest Airlines' warehouse, the company that processes 30 to 40 bodies a month for Mexicana.

"A few human remains to drop off," he delicately told the desk clerk inside, and handed over multiple packets of documents that would pave the way for Lopez' return home. Another packet had been slipped into the casket itself for good measure.

Back outside, Peña thrust the box onto the forklift. The forklift driver maneuvered it through the fluorescent-lit warehouse, past 25 boxes of electronics from Thailand, past boxes marked Supreme Comfort from China, size small, and loaded it onto a luggage buggy. "Handle With Extreme Care," it read on the side. An identical box sat on the buggy behind.

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