Exporting the Dead

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

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.

Staff at the funeral home load Lopez’ casket for the trip to the airport.
Paul Trapani
Staff at the funeral home load Lopez’ casket for the trip to the airport.
A memorial photo of Victor Cipriano Lopez at the site where he was killed.
Paul Trapani
A memorial photo of Victor Cipriano Lopez at the site where he was killed.
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
Lopez’ casket is turned over to cargo agents for the flight to Mexico.
Paul Trapani
Lopez’ casket is turned over to cargo agents for the flight to Mexico.
Paul Trapani
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

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.

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.

One recent Saturday morning, that was the tactic of the family of Luz del Alba Perez, who died on December 27, five days after giving birth to her fourth child at St. Luke's. Her somber father, Emiliano, and puffy-eyed brother, Emilio, piled into the SUV of Uzziel Behena, the godfather of Perez' older sons. First stop: Driscoll's, where Behena paid some $600 in cash he'd collected from his church and neighbors (the Mexican Consulate contributed $4,800 and a women's nonprofit in the Mission donated $1,000). Next stop: the Western Union at 21st and Mission streets, where Emiliano set a stack of $900 in small bills, donated by his co-workers at a fish processing plant in Fort Bragg, in the metal tray under the teller's window. He wired the money to another daughter, Maria de los Angeles, who lives near Palenque, a town in Chiapas, for funeral costs on their end. Final stop: the house of Natalia Perez, a friend (and no relation to Perez), who sent her own husband's body back to Puebla two years ago after he died in a Christmas morning apartment fire on 24th Street. She met Behena on the sidewalk with a plastic bag filled with five white boxes, heavy with coins, which she'd placed in supermarkets and beauty salons along 24th Street.

Back at Behena's Excelsior home, the three men and Behena's wife, Veronica Hernandez, dumped the coins and wrinkled bills from one box on the dining room table to silently count the stash: $479.20. Another box they picked up later that week from a beauty salon contained another $300. The money will be used to help Perez' family back in Mexico with the roughly $600 cost of getting the body driven from the airport in Villahermosa, Tabasco, to the family's home.

After whisking the money into a box, which will later be wired south of the Rio Grande, Veronica serves her guests cinnamon tea and leftover Mexican pastries from the funeral the day before. They reflect on the difference of dying here versus there. "There, in my town," she starts, "they help us with money, beans and corn, coffee. People come to your house and offer you help."

"There's no need to go around putting out little boxes," Behena adds.

The guests agree that if they die, they'd want to be sent back, too.

"Of course," Veronica says, and Behena tells the story of a woman he met at the consulate the prior week who was sending back her deceased toddler. Someone asked why she didn't bury her daughter here. "This girl said, 'If they [deport] us all out tomorrow, who's going to bring a flower for my child?'"

The family say they'd all follow Perez' body for the burial if they could, as funeral directors say Filipino families often do. "Since they don't give us papers, we can't come and go," Behena says. "We'd all be at the border waiting two months trying to get back here." For the first time that day, everyone at the table laughs.

About 40 mourners shuffle into the pews of Driscoll's Chapel #3 the Sunday after Thanksgiving, one day after Victor Lopez had planned to start his postponed drive to Mexico. Many are family — uncles, cousins. One cousin hands out black bows to attendees; they'll pin them on their shirts for several days, and, later, hang them on their doors.

Over the past two decades, members of the Lopez family have gradually immigrated to San Francisco, many from Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán. Migration to the United States is a thoroughly embedded part of the central coastal state's culture. More Michoacános now live in the United States than in Mexico, the dollars they wire back annually now dwarfing the amount allocated to the state from the federal government.

Lopez' father was caught by the border patrol while attempting to enter the U.S. in May 2001, after which he called his wife from Tijuana: I'm going to try to cross again. That was the last anyone heard from him.

After his father's presumed death, Lopez, the eldest son but just 15, ignored his mother's warnings and left for San Francisco, intending to support his family. He got painting jobs through Gerardo, and sent back enough money for his mother to buy a house from an uncle while Lopez was still a teen.

But the Mission can be full of temptations of quicker money for a young migrant, and in late 2005, Lopez ditched painting for hanging out in the street with thugs Gerardo suspected were gangbangers. Gerardo told his nephew he didn't want these new pals around his kids, so in late 2005, Lopez moved out. He was arrested at Mission and 17th streets for possession of crack cocaine for sale in January 2006, but was deported before he could make his April court date.

Returning to Mexico seemed to snap Lopez out of his short stint with crime. Never telling his mom why he had been deported, he started driving a taxi and attending an evangelical church several times a week. He had hope for the future: He had started dating a nursing student named Magali, the younger sister of his taxi fleet's boss, and eventually proposed to her. He called Gerardo from Mexico: Will you give me one more chance? He wanted to make some money to outfit his future home with Magali. Gerardo accepted: "He was like a son to me."

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.

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.

"People want to be back where they were born," a Northwest cargo agent says. "Or where they were happiest."

Lopez' casket, in its box, was loaded into the luggage compartment of Mexicana Flight 145, traveled south through the night, and arrived in Guadalajara at 6:10 the next morning, just three days later than he would have been passing through by truck. At the cargo department, the box was loaded into the hearse of a funeral home contracted with the state government of Michoacán. For the last 12 years, the state has covered the cost of transporting bodies from international airports to the deceased's hometowns. Of the 319 cases the state helped with in 2008, 44 percent were from California.

Mexican funeral home staff removed the cold cream and reapplied light cosmetics to Lopez' face, so when the hearse drove up to Trinidad Lopez Miranda's house (the one she paid for with the money Lopez wired home) Thursday afternoon, she said her son looked exactly how she remembered him.

"I never thought my son was going to come here like they brought him," she said. "I thought he was going to come home alive. I felt sad, but at the same time happy that they brought him to me."

The coffin was set up on the front patio, so the dozens of relatives and neighbors arriving that evening to pray for Lopez to be accepted into heaven could flow out into the dirt road blocked off to traffic. Magali wore a white dress, a bride for her deceased groom.

The next evening, the six mariachis hired for the wedding instead played forlorn ballads as Lopez' white casket was lowered into Mexican soil. At least this death had a conclusion, unlike that of his father, whom the family assumes has been buried in a nameless border grave.

"What the United States has brought me is sadness," Trinidad says in a phone interview. "It hasn't brought me good memories. ... For me, it's very sad."

Now, when she hears boys in the neighborhood talking about going north, she tells them it's not worth it. Her other sons are 18 and 20, ripe for migrating to the United States. But she says she'll never let another one of her boys go again.

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