Immigrants may face complications in times of grief


The Stamford Advocate
November 27, 2006

By Vesna Jaksic

After Lauriana Sofia Ostorva died in a car crash in September, her family turned to friends, relatives and the Hispanic community to help them raise money for services.

Though Ostorva, 44, lived in Stamford at the time, they planned services well beyond the city’s borders.

“The family needs to send the body to Mexico, her home country,” read a note taped to a plastic container in their kitchen, where they had collected donations.

As the area’s immigrant population grows, funeral directors say they increasingly are shipping bodies all over the world for burials. The financial burden is one of a number of challenges foreign-born families face when they lose loved ones. Delays with services, cultural clashes and the inability of some family members to attend services often confront these residents during difficult times.

Officials in the funeral industry said they have been feeling the impact of Stamford’s global ties.

“We have a lot of bodies we send to Honduras, Haiti and Guatemala,” said Angel Dorleans, a funeral director at Downer Funeral Home.

About a third of Stamford’s residents were born outside the country, the highest percentage in Connecticut, according to a study by Connecticut Voices for Children. A look at the obituaries in Stamford helps paint a picture of the city’s diversity.

When Jose A. Corado, 27, a Stamford resident for five years, died in March, his burial was scheduled to take place in Guatemala. When Aldemis Jemenez Discua Olulo, 35, was killed in 2003, the Hispanic community pitched in to send her body to her native Honduras. Frances Longbridge, 89, of Stamford, who died last December, was buried in Jamaica, where she was born.
And the list goes on.

The average cost of a funeral, not including cemetery costs, was $6,500 in July 2004, according to the most recent data available from the National Funeral Directors Association. But overseas funerals often cost several thousand dollars more, mostly due to airfare fees.

While regulations vary from country to country, services often involve consulate fees, special caskets, notarized documents, additional paperwork and more time, funeral directors said.

“Every country is different, so it’s probably the most complicated aspect of our business, which can be a little complicated to begin with,” said Jed Lawrence, owner of the Lawrence Funeral Home in Darien.

Delays and complications often arise during “ship-outs,” as they are often called in the industry. Different countries and airlines may have different travel restrictions and embargoes, so funeral homes sometimes have to hold bodies for days or even weeks before sending them.

Melissa Heaphy, a funeral director at Magner Funeral Home in Norwalk, said she once had to call a dozen shipping companies before she could find one willing to send ashes to Hungary. Nicholas Cognetta, owner of Cognetta Funeral Home, said that in the 1990s, he had to ship a body through Ukraine to get it to the former Yugoslavia because the country was in the middle of war.

A case from more than three decades ago involved an Italian-born man who died and was buried here, Cognetta said. His young daughter, who moved back to Italy after his death, wanted to fulfill his wish to be buried in Italy but could not afford the airfare for the casket, he said.

Every few years, she called from Italy to inquire about the cost, Cognetta said. About 10 years ago, she finally arranged for his remains to be shipped to Italy, he said.
“She wanted to fulfill his wish,” he said.

Dorleans said Downer Funeral Home once buried a 20-year-old Peruvian man in Stamford several weeks after his body was exhumed from Texas. He died of heat exhaustion there while trying to cross the Mexican border to come to the United States. When his relatives in Stamford found out what happened, they paid to bury him here.

While such cases are not typical, they bring up the common issues of separated families, multiple home countries and financial problems for many immigrants.

“They are going to go through the same stress as everyone else, but they have all these other issues,” said John Carmon, president of the Windsor-based Carmon Community Funeral Homes and past president of the National Funeral Directors Association. “They may not be as comfortable here and not as surrounded by their family. It really puts an extra burden on us to provide them with extra comfort and walk them through this.”

No data are available on how often overseas arrangements are made, although some consulates can provide estimates because they have to sign paperwork for ship-outs. Francisco Gonzalez, acting consul general of the Consulate General of Colombia in New York City, said his office handles four to 14 such requests each month, which include cases in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

Edgar Rodriguez, owner of Funeraria Luz De Paz in Bridgeport, said the number of international ship-outs will likely continue to climb.

“Many immigrants are still young, so their death rate is not high,” he said. “The older they get, it will happen more often.”

Some families choose not to send bodies overseas because they may not be able to get there due to travel restrictions as a result of their immigration status. For those who live here illegally, attending a funeral in the homeland means risking never being able to return to the United States.

Rodriguez said he once handled arrangements for a young Mexican man who died during a robbery. His brother wanted to bury him in Mexico but lived in the United States illegally. Nevertheless, the brother decided to go to Mexico, he said.

“It was a custom in their family that it was inappropriate to send a loved one back without anybody with him,” Rodriguez said. “He was not going to send his brother back to Mexico without being with him so he went back with him.”

Other times, relatives abroad may not be able to attend services here for similar reasons.

When Stamford resident Flor Andia’s brother Juan Carlos Andia, 28, died in spring from stomach cancer, their younger brother was not able to secure a visa in Peru to attend his funeral here. When Stamford resident Willio Fritz’s girlfriend, Jolimene Blanc, 33, died in January after suffering from internal bleeding, he could not get a visa for her mother in Haiti quickly enough so he sent the body there.

Because many immigrants here have relatives abroad, similar issues surface when a loved one dies back home. Ruben Rodriguez, 45, of Norwalk, was not able to attend services for his mother or his brother when they died in his native Honduras. When his brother died of a heart attack in 2004, he was buried in a mountain town that was six hours from the nearest airport and

Rodriguez could not arrange for transportation in time. His mother was buried in 2001 the day after she died, which was the same day news of her death reached Rodriguez thousands of miles away in Norwalk.

“You don’t know what to do and you don’t have the finances to buy a ticket right away,” said Rodriguez, who works in a mailroom at Purdue Pharma.

But Rodriguez, who moved here when he was 23, visited his relatives’ graves during a recent trip to his homeland with his 10-year-old son.

“Every time I go I try to visit he graves,” he said. “And I bring flowers.”