Javier and Martin Morales told their loved ones that, when they died, they wanted to be buried near their father’s grave in the small village of Mexico where they grew up. It was a wish that their family vowed to keep.
But when the brothers, who lived in New Jersey, died a few days apart in April after contracting COVID-19, their family struggled to keep their promise. Funeral directors and authorities in both the U.S. and Mexico told the family that repatriating their bodies home would be impossible – at least for now.
After six weeks of conversations with the funeral home and navigating laws governing the repatriation of remains, the family made the difficult decision to cremate, putting aside pains about their cultural and religious traditions.
“We had to sit down and try to process it as a unit,’’ said the brothers' niece, Karla Morales. “At that point, what can we do other than sadly accept it? At least with cremation, we hope to return them to our grandmother when we can. It’s not ideal, but that is the reality we are facing.”
Can't ship from U.S. without 'non-contagious' disease certification
The Morales family is among immigrant families across the country who have tried to repatriate the human remains of their loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic without success.
The staff of funeral homes who specialize in shipping bodies abroad for burial said transportation of remains during the pandemic has become difficult because there are few flights and several airlines have also placed embargoes for the international shipment of human remains. Delays in obtaining required documentation, such as death certificates, from consulates and local registrars, some of which are closed due to the pandemic, have also created obstacles.
The family of those who have died after being infected with COVID-19 face additional hurdles and realities. The United States requires a “noncontagious” disease certificate or letter to be obtained before deceased human bodies are transported abroad, said funeral directors. Since COVID-19 is extremely contagious, family members cannot obtain that letter and the only option is cremation with transportation later.
“Without that letter, we cannot ship from the US.A,’’ said Matthew Connors, director of operations and funeral director at Bergen Funeral Service, which has funeral homes in New Jersey, New York and Florida and ships around 70 human remains a month during normal times.
Several countries have published guidance on the repatriation of those who have died after testing positive for COVID-19. In Canada, for instance, human remains suspected or confirmed to have had COVID-19 can be repatriated if a body is cremated or if a body transported in an air-tight, sealed container. In Ecuador, officials have said they would only accept cremated remains of those who tested positive for COVID-19.
“There are a lot of people that have gotten upset, annoyed, and bothered, but unfortunately this is the reality,’’ said Alfonso Morales Suárez, consul general of Ecuador in New Jersey, who has fielded calls from families who want to send human remains to Ecuador in the past few months. “These are sanitary protocols established by the government of the United States and the government of Ecuador, and there is no possibility to move complete human remains of those who have died of COVID-19, there is no possibility.”
'People are desperate to fulfill their loved one's wishes'
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to more than 110,000 deaths in the U.S. so far, including more than 24,000 in New York and more than 12,000 in New Jersey, with those in immigrant communities being disproportionately affected.
Funeral directors who serve immigrant communities said they have spent hours talking to family members about the rules. Many they said have a hard time coming to terms with the idea of not being able to fulfill their loved one's wishes.
“It saddens me,’’ said Lisa LoRicco Sharp one of the funeral directors at the Gowen Funeral Home in New Brunswick, New Jersey, which usually ships between 30 to 40 bodies a year to other countries, but who said she has not transported any since the end of February. “Trying to convince the family is the biggest thing."
Marco Perez, the managing partner at the Jorge Rivera Funeral Home in North Bergen, New Jersey, said he has received calls from community members who have family members in critical condition due to other ailments, such as cancer, and are now worried that they won't be able to send them abroad.
He said he's gotten many more calls from family members of those who died battling COVID-19.
"I can't repatriate someone due to a communicable disease,'' he said. "But I have been asked so many times, at minimum 80 different times from 80 different families. I have to tell them that you just can't do it."
Some, he said, purchased plots in their birth country years earlier and are not able to be buried there.
"For any family that has been affected by COVID-19, they have been deprived of so many things,'' he said.
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Perez, whose funeral home transports around 150 to 200 bodies a year to the Caribbean, Central and South America said that in the first two months of the pandemic he shipped around 20.
Connors of the Bergen Funeral Home said he had one case where a family decided to bury their loved one locally but said they planned to exhume the remains later and ship them abroad.
“People are desperate to fulfill their loved one's wishes while also working within the constraints of COVID-19,’’ he said.
Some in the funeral industry are hopeful that once airlines begin to add flights and countries reopen, that requirements will change and that families will be allowed to bury their loved ones in their homelands despite contracting COVID-19.
"The clarity on this is not there yet, but it's getting closer,'' said David McComb, owner of Eagles Wings Air of Fort Wayne, ndiana, which works with funeral homes and airlines throughout the country to transport around 20,000 human remains a year within the United States and abroad.
McComb said there is no risk of transmission if a body is properly embalmed and placed in an airtight shipping container.
'We are relying on our (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to be the influencer with our consulates and embassies that there is no danger to anybody that would be moving the human remains in a container where the body has been properly embalmed,'' he said. "We are hoping that reason prevails and people get their wish of being able to celebrate their loved one's life in their home country."
Happiest memories in Mexico
Many friends asked Karla Morales why her family, especially her cousins, tried so hard to get their uncles' bodies back to Mexico. Her parents, aunts and uncles, she said, have always longed to be buried in their birth country where their ancestors have been buried. Her grandmother, she said, had also not seen her son, Martin Morales, for years.
“Yes, my uncles were able to make a new home out of this country and were able to flourish, but their happiest memories were in their village,’’ said Karla Morales. “It’s not just our family, many of course, but the channels we would have to navigate are so difficult.”
Gregorio Rosales, 69, of the Bronx, was a taxi driver providing for his 13-year old daughter. He had lost his partner to cancer and was his daughter’s sole provider. When cases of coronavirus began to be reported in New York, Rosales continued to work, picking up riders at hospitals.
“He had the need of making a living for his daughter, so he needed to find a job and do whatever and might not have thought of the consequences of this,’’ said his niece, Dulce Mojica.
Rosales contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized before he died on April 5.
Mojica said the hospital gave her 15 days to find a funeral home to claim the body, otherwise, her uncle's remains may have ended up being buried in a mass grave. She called 27 funeral homes before she found one that could help her.
Mojica said after speaking with her 13-year-old cousin and finding out that Rosales had spoken of wanting to be laid to rest in Mexico she began to inquire about the procedures. Her family in Mexico was hoping she could figure out a way for Rosales’ body to return intact so they could bid him a proper farewell.
“There was a lot of back and forth and me explaining to them that the funeral home was not giving us any option, that the only option was cremation, and for my family that was the worst,’’ Mojica recalled. “Honestly, when I received his ashes, it hit me. All of my family in Mexico are devastated."
Rosales moved to the United States about 35 years ago, Mojica said. He was unable to adjust his immigration status, which was the reason he never returned to Mexico, where some of his older children still live, she said.
“The last time he saw his children in Mexico, they were little kids, the oldest one was 10 years old,’’ she said. “Now the way they will get back their father is in a box.”
A burial 3,000 miles away
Alberto Curruchich Calicio, 44, emigrated from Guatemala about three years ago. He left his wife and three children in the hopes of being able to find a job that paid better than what he made working in agriculture back home, said his brother-in-law Abraham Asijtuj of Passaic, New Jersey.
When he arrived in northern New Jersey he began work in construction, he said. He made enough money to provide for his wife, Patricia, and their children ages 18, 15, and 6-years old back home.
Asijtuj said that Curruchich Calicio hoped to return to Guatemala after a few more years.
But Curruchich Calicio would never get that chance.
He died April 28 in his New Jersey apartment,more than 3,000 miles from Santa Anita las Canoas, a village of the municipality of San Martin Jilotepeque in the department of Chimaltenango, where he lived before migrating.
He had been feeling ill for days, and after he died, an autopsy revealed that he had contracted COVID-19, Asijtuj said.
His wife wanted Curruchich Calicio’s body to be sent back to Guatemala. The family spoke about cremation, but his wife was adamant that his body be buried because of their Christian religious beliefs, said Asijtuj.
“We had no other option but to bury him here and at least give him a Christian burial,’’ said Asijtuj.
Asijtuj launched a GoFundMe page to collect funds for the burial. After gathering more than $7,000, Curruchich Calicio body was placed in a white coffin and buried in an unmarked grave at Fairview Cemetery in New Jersey. His family back in Guatemala watched the service via Facebook Live.
“His wife is destroyed, she’s still dealing with the loss of her husband,’’ Asijtuj said. "Unfortunately, my sister and his children may never come, and she won’t be able to visit his grave. It’s sad, but there is nothing we can do.”
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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Coronavirus: Families struggle to keep their loved ones' burial wishes