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    For immigrant workers who die in US, a body’s journey home is one last struggle
    • May 2, 2024

    Nearly two decades after Maynor Suazo Sandoval left Honduras seeking American prosperity, he will finally make the long-awaited trip home.

    Suazo Sandoval was a month from his 39th birthday when he and five other highway workers fell to their deaths March 26 as the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed.

    His return soon to Central America will allow his mother, Emerita, to lay her youngest child to rest in his native soil. People plan to meet Suazo Sandoval’s body at the airport in San Pedro Sula with a caravan of cars to accompany him to his hometown of Azacualpa, where the married father sent enough money from the U.S. to fund a kids’ soccer league and his relatives’ educations. The family expects a crowd of 4,000 people to say their goodbyes. 

    “It was Maynor’s wish to be buried in his land,” said his nephew, Hector Guardado Suazo, speaking in Spanish by phone from Honduras. 

    Suazo Sandoval is not unique among Baltimore-area immigrants who want their country of origin to be their final resting place. But repatriation can be a costly and lengthy process. And it complicates funeral arrangements for relatives, many of whom are forced — by physical separation and the need for visas and passports — to mourn in one country or the other. 

    Still, the pull of tradition or a desire to satisfy the deceased’s wishes motivates Maryland’s immigrant families to scrape together thousands of dollars, some selling chicken and rice at construction sites or asking for donations online. 

    Candi Cann, an associate professor at Baylor University who studies death, dying and grief, said for the many immigrants who come to the U.S. out of economic necessity, repatriation is a last “gift” a family can give the deceased. 

    “Many of them left because they felt like they had no other options,” Cann said. “Repatriation under these circumstances becomes even more important and it becomes a kind of symbol, if you will, of the love and care of the community, that their one last act for the dead is to allow them to return home.” 

    So far, teams combing the Patapsco River’s depths have recovered the bodies of five men, including Suazo Sandoval and Miguel Luna, whose body was found Wednesday. One worker, José Mynor López, remains missing. 

    While some of the workers’ families have decided to repatriate their loved ones, 35-year-old Alejandro Hernández Fuentes‘s relatives planned to bury him in the U.S.

    Widespread public attention and sympathy for the families of the Key Bridge crew has generated enough money to help fund repatriation expenses, as well ensuring the U.S. granted permission for two dozen relatives to travel here to mourn their lossOfficials obtained authorization in as little as 24 hours for some relatives to enter the United States, said Tom Perez, a senior White House adviser and a former Maryland and federal labor secretary who has met with families.

    The relatives of Maryland immigrants who die in less-public circumstances rely on community advocates, funeral directors and foreign diplomats to usher their loved ones home. For some, the U.S. immigration system determines whether families grieve together or apart.

    The path to a final flight

    On Monday morning, funeral director Brian Cable prepared to transport the body of a woman from Philip D. Rinaldi Funeral Service in Silver Spring to BWI Marshall Airport for her final flight to Honduras.

    It’s not unusual for the suburban Washington funeral home to repatriate several bodies a week to other countries, part of a service for which Rinaldi charges $7,500. 

    Although arranging for a repatriation can take as little as seven to 10 business days, families sometimes wait months to ship a body to allow political instability to subside at home, gather far-flung family members for a funeral, wait out a rainy season or raise enough money, Cable said. 

    On Monday, the woman’s sealed metal casket lay in a cardboard container that was mounted on a wooden base. Rinaldi employees assembled a death certificate, an affidavit, a county health department letter stating the body was free from contagious diseases and a burial transit permit.

    Days earlier, her relatives held a church service and an overnight vigil. Cable said families often hold visitations late in the evening to allow fellow immigrants working two or three jobs to attend.

    Susana Barrios attended such a late-night Mass in March at Sacred Heart of Jesus for three members of a family who died in a fire in Baltimore Highlands in Southeast Baltimore. 

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    Barrios, vice president of the Latino Racial Justice Circle, helped arrange repatriation of the bodies for the Guatemalan family, sorting out the complex paperwork that can be an obstacle for people in the grip of grief.

    Ángel Gustavo Adolfo Paz Gutierrez, 8; his sister, Yeymi Rubi Gutierrez Paz, 13, and their cousin, Geremias Gutierrez Gomez, 22, were laid to rest March 24 in Guatemala. Barrios made use of a contact at the Guatemalan consulate to help the three-week process along, a resource of which she said not everyone is aware.

    “A lot of the time, people just go around their community and they do food sales. They sell pupusas, they sell whatever, so they can raise money to repatriate,” Barrios said. 

    A few thousand dollars can be a hurdle for families that have just lost someone who was a breadwinner for dependents in their home country. That was the case for Geremias Gutierrez Gomez, who was supporting his child and his younger sister in Guatemala

    Also, Barrios said, funeral homes occasionally charge grieving families too much or fail to be transparent about their prices.

    “If you know what’s happening, it’s not hugely complicated,” Barrios said. “But if you don’t know what’s happening, you can fall prey.” 

    Barrios experienced the repatriation process herself more than two decades ago. Her brother, Carlos Flores, 33, was found dead in 2003 in a trailer at a Fells Point construction site. Consumed by heartbreak, she let her then-husband handle most of the arrangements.

    “For us, it wasn’t religious. It was my mother,” Barrios said. “She needed to bury him in Guatemala. She visits him there.”

    For most undocumented relatives, grieving apart is a “sad reality,” Barrios said. Some people who live in the U.S. can’t travel home with a body without risking being denied reentry, while family abroad can’t easily enter the United States to make funeral arrangements. Even for those with a secure immigration status, time and distance can create their own difficulties.

    “It’s a blessing and a curse when you’re here and you haven’t seen family members in so many years,” Barrios said. “When somebody passes away and you’re used to not seeing them, it’s not real sometimes that they are gone.” 

    Funeral Director Brian Cable of Rinaldi Funeral Service in Silver Spring, describes the complexities of repatriating the deceased to their home countries. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

    Extra paperwork

    Along with supplying or approving documents, foreign consulates also offer financial assistance to those trying to send a loved one home. 

    Honduran families in the Washington area who ask the consulate to help pay for repatriation can go to one of six funeral homes, including two in Maryland, said Bianka Cortes, a protection agent for Honduran migrants at the Consular Section of the Embassy of Honduras in Washington.

    For needy families, the Honduran consulate will pay the cost — around $7,000 to $10,000 — directly to those funeral homes. 

    “In Honduras, we do not have the culture of cremating our bodies, so burying them is our cultural way to say our last goodbye to our family members,” Cortes said.

    Families in Honduras typically hold a candlelight vigil — “una vela” — and spend 24 hours eating food and drinking coffee before burying the body the next day, she said. 

    The Consulate General of Guatemala in Maryland receives between 15 to 20 requests per month for information on repatriating loved ones’ remains. Around three families apply each month for economic assistance, according to a consulate spokesperson. 

    Carmen Luna paints a message to her late husband, Miguel Luna, on a mural dedicated to the six workers killed in the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

    Funeral directors perform the bulk of the legwork when it comes to repatriation, which varies between countries and requires more documents than a local burial or transporting a body within the U.S.

    “It really does boil down to paperwork,” said Michael T. Kaczorowski, the owner and mortician at Kaczorowski Funeral Home on Dundalk Avenue. “We try to take as much off the family’s plate as humanly possible.” 

    To send a body to some countries, a Maryland-based funeral director might need to pay a visit to a consulate in Washington, have documents certified in Annapolis and get materials professionally translated, all before booking a flight and bringing the body to an airport’s cargo facility. Coordinating across language barriers with a funeral home in the receiving country can add an extra layer of difficulty. Prices vary, as costs like airfare fluctuate throughout the year.

    Requirements differ from country to country and airline to airline. In some cases, remains that have not been embalmed or cremated may not be accepted, said Jack Mitchell, president of the Mitchell-Wiedefeld Funeral Home in Towson and past president of the National Funeral Directors Association.

    An embalming requirement could create added difficulties for some Key Bridge families, Mitchell said. The bodies of the victims who have not yet been found may be too decomposed for the traditional preservation process, which requires fluids to be circulated through a person’s blood vessels, he said.

    However, morticians may be able to use other embalming methods to meet the requirements, said Andrew Dowell, a mortician at Lilly & Zeiler Funeral Home in Baltimore, which handles one to two repatriations each month.

    Or, the families could opt for cremation.

    The countries the six Key Bridge workers hailed from — Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala — have deep Catholic roots. Although the Vatican lifted a prohibition on cremation in 1963, the church still requires ashes to be buried, rather than scattered. 

    Home to Kathmandu

    For some immigrants, local burial traditions may drive the desire to repatriate. In Nepal, those customs often involve cremating the deceased in a wood fire along the banks of a nearby river.

    For Nepalis whose loved ones die in the United States, Democratic Del. Harry Bhandari of Baltimore County said he has become something like a “911 call.” Since he became the first Nepalese American elected to office in the U.S. in 2019, he has helped nearly 400 families navigate the process of repatriating bodies to South Asia.

    Some challenges of repatriation to Nepal include contacting next-of-kin who are 10 time zones away and don’t have reliable phone and internet access, as well as transporting remains to towns so remote they can require a helicopter ride from the capital of Kathmandu. 

    For the rich and well-connected, the process may not be difficult, Bhandari said. But most of the people who call Bhandari for help are from poor families, with a deceased loved one who traveled to America in search of education or opportunity. 

    “They don’t have a voice. It’s hard for them to navigate through the process,” Bhandari said. “They don’t have the resources. They don’t have a contact.”

    Across the Nepali-American community, word has traveled about his expertise, so much so that his senior citizen constituents bring it up.“They say: ‘Hey, Delegate, I have heard that you help Nepalis,’” Bhandari said. “‘If I die, can you please send my body to Nepal?’”

    Baltimore Sun reporter Lia Russell contributed to this article.

    ​ Orange County Register