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Bodies Shipped from S.F. to Latin America Take a Road Trip 

Wednesday, Sep 28 2011
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Besides standing at the forefront of the green industry (Solyndra notwithstanding), the Bay Area also leads a burgeoning movement to reduce the environmental impact of death. You can be buried in a cardboard box in Mill Valley, or train to prepare un-embalmed bodies for home funerals in Sebastopol. Yet there's one segment of society that whose passing will always leave a significant carbon footprint — the immigrant families who fly their deceased back home via commercial airline.

For years, the king of the city's body exportation industry was Driscoll's Serra Mortuary on Valencia Street, which prepares about 60 bodies a year for international shipment, usually to Latin America.

But in the last year, Driscoll's director Tom Barry was befuddled to be called up three times by a Los Angeles funeral home wanting to rent a chapel in San Francisco for an S.F. body that had been prepared down in L.A.

Over the last decade, the Latino Americana Mortuary and the Continental Funeral Home in L.A. has been charging $2,500 to $3,500 for the preparation and repatriation of bodies, almost half of what many Bay Area mortuaries bill. Word has gotten around, with the Nicaraguan, Salvadorean, and Guatemalan consulates recommending them to low-income families. The Mexican consulate (the heavy-hitter that repatriated more than 200 bodies in the last year) includes the two companies on a list they provide to families.

The logistics are complicated: Latino Americana employee Rick Ramirez says a driver heads to San Francisco in a refrigerated van to pick up the body at the morgue. The cadaver is taken to L.A. for embalming, and then, if the family in San Francisco wants a local visitation, driven back north in a hearse. Finally, given that LAX offers cheaper rates than SFO for shipments of human remains, the body is hauled back to Los Angeles.

Ramirez says the L.A. funeral homes pick up three to five bodies a week from the Bay Area. "It's not the greenest way," says Barry. As for still offering a cheaper price, "I don't know how they're able to do it," he says.

Ramirez credits volume: some 1,200 to 1,500 bodies shipped abroad each year.

Barry says he'll refuse to rent space to the L.A. company in the future. "We prefer if the person is going to be in our chapel, we know how they're embalmed and what level of expertise the people embalming them had."

But competition might be getting fiercer, not better. Ramirez says they're considering opening a Northern California funeral home, maybe in Sacramento.

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Lauren Smiley

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