A striking worker holds a sign that says “respect and protection to the worker” in Spanish in front of Matson Fruit on Wednesday in Selah, Washington. (Evan Abell/Yakima Herald-Republic via AP)

A striking worker holds a sign that says “respect and protection to the worker” in Spanish in front of Matson Fruit on Wednesday in Selah, Washington. (Evan Abell/Yakima Herald-Republic via AP)

Guest workers worry their bodies won’t get back to Mexico if they die

Only cremated remains have been approved for repatriation.

By Lex Talamo / Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash.

In a Facebook video, a row of candles flickered on a table at Langevin El Paraiso Funeral Home in Yakima. Each was decorated with the picture of a person who had died in April.

As the ceremony ended, Renee Harpe read a poem.

“In our hearts, we thought of you today,” it began.

Harpe, sales manager at Dignity Memorial Funeral Homes, the parent company for Langevin El Paraiso, said the May 14 virtual remembrance ceremony was a response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is just a way to help families find closure during this challenging time of not being able to celebrate services,” she said.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order initially banned funerals. In late March, he said funerals could resume, but they could only be attended by immediate family.

While local families have struggled with saying goodbye to loved ones during the pandemic, others have a unique cause for concern.

Seasonal farmworkers from Mexico worry that if they catch COVID-19 and die from it, their bodies won’t make it back home, said Diana Oliveros with the Mexican Consulate in Seattle.

Oliveros said the consulate is mostly approving cremated remains for repatriation since many states in Mexico are not accepting full-body transports due to concerns about COVID-19.

That can present a problem for some first-generation immigrant families, who often do not accept cremation due to religious and cultural beliefs.

Press attache Marco Bárcena said the Consulate is asking families to strongly consider cremation, despite their reservations.

“Families usually expect to receive the full body and bury their deceased relatives in their hometowns in Mexico,” he said. “It is a very personal decision that needs to be respected. However, it is important to say that costs, logistics and paperwork vary between cremation and full body remains.”

Repatriated remains

This year, agricultural employers statewide anticipate hiring more than 20,000 guest workers for the fields, about 5,000 of whom will work in the Yakima Valley.

They will arrive in a county where workers walked off their jobs at seven fruit packing plants this month to demand additional protections against the new coronavirus — and where more than 240 of the county’s confirmed COVID-19 cases have been agriculture workers.

Although most individuals infected by the coronavirus recover, the Mexican Consulate received calls about repatriating the remains of seven people who died from COVID-19 from January until the end of April.

Oliveros said only cremated remains have been approved for repatriation.

“The remains allowed to go into Mexico are ashes, not the full body,” she said. “It may be impossible to get remains back to Mexico if families want the full-body option.”

Bárcena said the agency would need to request special approval from destination states for full-body transports, should families insist. Even then, transporting the remains would be much more expensive and take longer to arrive in Mexico because of limited flights.

The repatriation of remains involves a multistep process, in which the consulate coordinates with a family’s chosen funeral home to complete required paperwork and issue a visa.

Arranging for funeral services and transportation for cremated remains can add up to $6,000 to the cost, on the low end.

Bárcena said the consulate can, in some cases, provide limited financial assistance to families for basic funeral services and transportation costs. The consulate would not pay for “extras,” such as flowers, luxury caskets or funeral expenses. A relative of the deceased, who can prove the relationship with valid ID and a birth certificate, has to request the aid.

The amount of assistance provided depends on the consulate’s budget, the financial situation of the family, and the estimated cost of services, Bárcena said.

Grace Velazquez, a funeral director intern at Langevin el Paraiso, said first-generation immigrant families in the Yakima Valley often aren’t familiar with the repatriation process or the costs. She said it’s common for families who come from villages in Mexico to hold an overnight vigil for a deceased loved one and bury them the next day, without embalming — a process very different from what’s typical in the United States.

“They come to us and want a body buried tomorrow,” she said. “We need to do a lot of education about the process, and they are not prepared economically or mentally. It’s a topic no one wants to talk about, but it’s important.”

Losing a loved one during COVID-19

Before a loved one’s remains can be sent to Mexico, Langevin El Paraiso’s staff have to obtain multiple documents, including a death certificate and a permit from the health department.

Velazquez said the funeral home’s staff have to emphasize with some clients that they shouldn’t tell their families in Mexico that their loved ones’ remains will arrive “in a week or two,” because the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown everything into flux.

Last week, Velazquez had arranged with the consulate to ship someone’s remains to Mexico. When she called to check in a day before the flight, she was told no flights would be touching down in Mexico City or Guadalajara.

“I thought, ‘What am I going to tell this family? They’ve been waiting for two weeks,’” she said. “As a funeral home, there are things that we do not have control on. At this time, things are changing by the day.”

The family arrived at the funeral home “very worried,” she said. Thankfully, a flight opened up later in the day and the plans could proceed, Velazquez said.

Velazquez said she’s never had any trouble with people taking cremated remains to Mexico. She said Yakima families have been understanding about the nudge toward cremation due to restrictions related to the pandemic.

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