Body Work

Mexican dead take a long and winding road back home

They're the calls Jeronimo Garcia most hates to make. Garcia works at Tucson's Mexican Consulate, and he's a cheerful chap in a crisp blue shirt with white stripes. But his proficient bonhomie droops when duties turn to death. One never grows accustomed to anguish.

Often, he phones families in Mexico, telling them that a loved one has died. "It's very sad," he says, frowning and toying with a phone cord.

It's also pricey. Nationwide, Mexican consulates spend some $2 million annually to ship approximately 4,500 bodies to Mexico. According to Garcia, consulates in Arizona return about 1,000 bodies each year, costing more than $100,000. Returnees range from ill-fated immigrants dying alone in the desert to legal visitors who perish here--and often bankrupt their families trying to get the bodies back home.

"There are a large number of Mexican citizens who come for medical care," says Patrick Foley, general manager of Arizona's Adair funeral homes. "Regular Mexican nationals are passing away in hospitals in Tucson. It happens quite a bit."

With an estimated 40 million Hispanics living in the United States, repatriation of bodies to Mexico and other Latin American countries--a sentimental tradition--has also caught the attention of businesses such as Florida-based Cristel Telecom. Along with flashy phone cards named "Ayy, Chihuahua!" or "El Gallo Loco," the company now sells "Repatriar" credits promising up to $10,000 in repatriation services. Appropriately, the cards also cover funeral arrangement calls to and from Mexico.

And for a mere $50, Servicios Especiales Professionales, with an office in Lynwood, Calif., will ensure the return of bodies to relatives south of the border. Of course, certain caveats apply: Clients must be under 70 years of age and free of terminal disease.

For the young and thriving, however, salesman Ramiro Lopez says SEP services extend all the way to Tucson. "We haven't reached there yet, advertising-wise. But we cover all the 48 contiguous states."

The $50 certificate covers cadavers for five years, he says. "If you should happen to pass away (in the United States), we take you back to where you're from--to your doorstep. We cover for collection of your body from wherever it is in the United States, then to the nearest mortuary that's licensed to ship bodies."

Services may also include "embalming of the body, the standard casket, all the paperwork and permits, and transportation to the closest airport to your hometown."

Based in Mexico City, the 40-year-old company has long specialized in providing general insurance policies to middle- or lower-class Mexicans. "But we saw a big problem (in the United States)," Lopez says. "People are here working, and sending all their money back to Mexico to give their family a better life. Those families then have to sell everything so they can bring the body back. Otherwise, (the bodies) end up in universities for study, or are sent to paupers' fields."

His company has shipped 14 bodies this year, with a cost to the company of around $5,000 each.

Still, the prepping and moving of bodies is just part of the picture. "Families also must secure the necessary permits," says Rudy Thomas, executive director of the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. "They are responsible for the disposition permits, meaning which (funeral home) handles the date, the death and the final disposition to Mexico."

But funeral homes such as Adair will also handle the headaches. "It can get complicated," says Foley. "It takes time, and there are a lot of legal-document translations."

That paperwork includes burial transit permits, certified death certificates, notarized embalmers' affidavits and letters declaring that the body carries no contagious diseases. "Then all of those documents have to be translated into Spanish," he says.

In turn, bodies return to Mexico by every method but horseback. "Some are flown back; some are met at the border and transferred; and some are driven from here," Foley says. "There are so many varieties of things that happen."

And some are snuck back across the border, says Rudy Thomas. "There were some funeral homes from Mexico that tried to--or may have--come into the United States and transported bodies without authorization." But by law, "They must work with one of our licensed establishments."

In the end, those corporeal usurpers are traceable, says Douglas Leach, death registry manager for the Arizona Department of Health Services. "If a person dies in Arizona, a ... certificate will indicate where the remains went--if they were buried in an Arizona cemetery, or shipped to another state or country. And if procedures aren't followed, at some point along the line, we're going to find that out."

And then? There's not much to do at that point, short of dispatching the corpse corps to set things straight.

But don't hold your breath.

Meanwhile, back at the consulate, death's details keep Jeronimo Garcia busy. But that's part of the job, he says, for an office prepared to help its countrymen, no matter where they pass on.

"And it doesn't matter if they have the papers or not. If they are Mexican, we help."

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