HOME AT LAST: Once Immigrants Came to America for Life. Now More and More Are Planning Return To Native Land After Death


Marcos Sandoval fingers his beeper and perches himself on the arm of a chair in the apartment of his lifelong friend, Arcadio Guerra. Mr. Guerra's companion of six years, Maria Rios, sits slumped in a couch across the way, her hand over her chest.

Just 24 hours earlier, Mr. Guerra, a Guatemalan immigrant who ** worked as a cook in a Little Italy restaurant, had been shot to death during his nightly walk in Patterson Park. Mr. Sandoval, a 37-year-old Owings Mills resident, knows the job of making burial arrangements will fall to him. Ms. Rios, by her own admission, is too strongly in the grip of "la pena negra," the black pain of losing a loved one. Still, there is one issue they must decide, now, together.

"There is no doubt in my mind we should send him back home," Mr. Sandoval says firmly, mustering a smile. Home is Guatemala.

Ms. Rios looks around the South Washington Street apartment the couple had shared. "Ay, Ricardo," she whispers her boyfriend's nickname. "I would like him to be buried here, where I could visit. I will miss him. But Marcos is right: That is where he belongs, with his parents and family."

Returning Mr. Guerra to his homeland for burial will be a costly and complicated process. But immigrants in Maryland and throughout the nation increasingly are choosing to bear the cost of repatriating remains. In fact, many plan and save for a posthumous trip home from the time they set foot on foreign soil.

"I think the commitment to becoming an American was so strong in the past that no one thought of going back," says Richard E. Meyer, a professor at Western Oregon State College who studies ethnicity and cemeteries. "The sense of finality in leaving one's country is not what it once was."

Although the vast majority of immigrants still elect to be buried here, the airlines that ship remains, the foreign governments that approve the shippings and many immigrants themselves say the number of repatriations is surging.

"I love this country, but I do not wish to be buried here," says Jose Luaces, a Baltimore resident for more than 33 years and a U.S. citizen since 1967. He has a wife and daughter here, but wants to be buried beside his mother in Bilbao, Spain. "You can be far away from your family and parents for a long time, but you can't be away from family for all time."

Mr. Luaces and others acknowledge that repatriation represents something of a rejection of American tradition -- particularly for immigrants from Latin America and other predominantly Catholic areas. There, religious and cultural traditions dictate that the graves of loved ones be visited regularly, and in some countries special holidays honor the dead.

Many immigrants see American cemeteries as quiet places where small, tasteful graves blend too much into the landscape, as though the dead were meant to be forgotten.

"The graves in Guatemala look more alive, with small houses for the bodies," says Mr. Sandoval. "It's about culture and customs." He knows the pull of home and tradition remained strong in the life of his friend, who was slain on Sept. 19.

Mr. Guerra, who was 46, grew up in the eastern Guatemalan town of Agua Blanca, where he and Mr. Sandoval played soccer on the same field. Mr. Sandoval came to Maryland 15 years ago, and his stories of job opportunities inspired his friend. Saying he was a tourist, Mr. Guerra arrived in Baltimore in 1989 and did odd jobs until securing a work permit.

Friends say he planned to apply for U.S. citizenship, and he was further tied to this country by his close relationship with Ms. Rios, a Honduran immigrant. But on slow nights at Capriccio, the restaurant where he worked, he would confide to co-workers his dream of making enough money to return to Guatemala someday to open his own Italian restaurant.

Much of the activity at the viewing of Mr. Guerra's body, five days after the slaying, was designed to bridge the distance between Baltimore and Guatemala. Mr. Sandoval and Victor Flores, a waiter at Capriccio, both held video cameras and recorded testimonials from the 75 visitors. A tape would be sent to Mr. Guerra's parents.

"I want to tell you about my godfather, a good man," Marcos Sandoval's sister, Ana Sandoval, said into Mr. Flores' camera. "To his family in Guatemala, I want to say, 'God bless you. I hope you can see now that all our families are united: here and in Guatemala.' "

A Group Effort

Mr. Guerra died on a Tuesday. The next day, Marcos Sandoval searches his memory and phones the only funeral home whose name he can remember: Frank Della Noce's place on High Street.

The easygoing Mr. Sandoval and the gruff, task-oriented Mr. Della Noce aren't an easy match. They argue over whether to have an open casket for a man who, after all, was shot in the head (Mr. Sandoval wins, and the casket is open). And Mr. Della Noce consistently refers to the body's destination as "Guadaloupe."

While the funeral director takes care of many details, the transfer of Mr. Guerra's body is facilitated by a vast network of Hispanics -- including clergy and business owners.

"There's a growing infrastructure in the Hispanic community that handles this kind of transfer," says Jose Trevino, a Greenbelt lawyer who counts several Hispanics among his clients. "When someone dies, families help each other out." For some repatriations, he and other Hispanics say, more than 250 people will contribute money to send the body home.

The bill for the shipment of Mr. Guerra's body, as well as funeral services, will add up to about $6,000. In other cases, such costs have discouraged families from shipping loved ones home. And some community leaders discourage the poorest families from repatriation.

Recently, Sister Mary Neil Corcoran, who heads the Spanish Apostolate on Wolfe Street, and Manuel Alban, a Spanish-language newspaper publisher, tried to talk a Salvadoran family out of spending their money on repatriating the body of a man with six children. They argued that the family's savings would be better spent on the children, but the body was shipped anyway.

Funeral directors say more immigrant families are saving specifically for repatriation. Consider Bernard Falk, a Polish-American who lived in the United States for 40 years and died in Baltimore in 1992. Returning his body to the Baltic town of Czersk, Poland, cost his family $4,500.

Mr. Falk's repatriation isn't the only one his family has arranged. Rozalia Moldrzyk, 79, has buried Mr. Falk, who was her brother, two other siblings, a sister-in-law and a husband in Czersk. Someday "not so soon," she says, her son Eugeniusz will arrange for her body to be sent back to Poland.

"We knew so we saved," says Eugeniusz Moldrzyk, adding that he plans to be buried in the United States. "My family has always considered themselves not immigrants but political exiles. But no matter why we came here, they all knew they would want to be buried back home."

Some repatriation-minded families have turned to cremation, to avoid the considerable cost of shipping a body. Also, the portability of ashes allows families to return the remains at their convenience.

"My dad liked the flexibility of cremation," says Horacio Tablada Jr., whose father, Horacio Tablada Sr., died in August. The family's first instinct was to send his body home to Nicaragua, but instead his ashes now rest in Arbutus, in an urn by his widow's bed. "Now if my mother or any of his children go back to Nicaragua," Mr. Tablada says, "he can go with us" and be buried there.

But cremation is opposed by Mr. Guerra's family members in Guatemala, even though they don't have the money to pay for the shipping. As it turns out, Mr. Guerra's savings will foot much of the bill. Over six years, he had saved more than $8,000.

Initially, Mr. Sandoval is unable to get into his friend's account at First National Bank of Maryland. So Hispanic entrepreneurs, friends of Mr. Guerra and members of his church step forward to donate. But finally, Mr. Sandoval returns to the bank armed with police and medical examiner's reports. Most of the savings pay the funeral cost. The rest will be used to help Ms. Rios pay the bills.

A Frustrating Errand

After Mr. Guerra's body arrives from the medical examiner's office on Friday, Mr. Della Noce calls the Guatemalan consulate and spends the day getting the documentation he'll need to ship the body: certified copies of the death certificate ($4 each), a burial transit permit to allow movement of the body out of state, a certificate from the embalmer, and a letter from the city saying that Mr. Guerra did not die of plague or contagious disease.

This is precise work, Mr. Della Noce notes, because most countries have unique requirements for the documents, containers and protocol for shipping a body. Shipping experts say 50 years of efforts to get a global standard for remains shipments have failed.

Each repatriation must be approved by the country's consulate, and Mr. Della Noce has a Monday appointment at the Guatemalan consulate, near Dupont Circle in Washington. But dealing with government bureaucrats is the sort of frustrating errand that can bring the funeral director's blood to a boil.

So Peter Geier, a patient man who rents the apartment above the Della Noce funeral home, drives his '78 Datsun down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and over to the Guatemalan consulate. There, he is ushered into an office that looks like a bank with room for three tellers. Two consular officers look approvingly at the death certificate, burial transit permit and the other papers. But where, asks one, is the police report?

Mr. Geier smiles and calmly notes that the death certificate lists the cause of death. A police report, he says, would be redundant.

The official nods, and returns to a back room. The sound of a copy machine is heard. About 40 minutes later, she reappears. Mr. Geier writes her a check for $10, a low fee considering that Argentina charges $60 and Brazil $100. "Everything's OK," the official says as Mr. Geier leaves, "but we would have preferred the police report."

Later that evening, Mr. Sandoval, sitting in his brother's home in North Baltimore, is buoyed. He has spoken to Mr. Guerra's sister in Guatemala City, where all the funeral arrangements have been made. It will be a proper burial.

"A lot of people," he says, "will take care of Ricardo's grave."

A Check for $813

Mr. Della Noce plans to put the body on a Tuesday flight out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport, but the Guatemalan airline changes its schedule. The body is switched to a flight out of Dulles International Airport on Tuesday morning. Mr. Della Noce complains that he will have to get the body to the Virginia airport by 6 a.m.

By 6:15 the next morning, the funeral director hasn't arrived and Raul Chavez, the cargo manager for Taca Airlines, is frantic. "Who has the human remains?" he asks. "We need the human remains."

At 6:30, Mr. Della Noce's hearse drives up Dulles' west service road and stops at Warehouse 60. He opens the hearse to reveal the casket, which he has had placed in an airtight, watertight metal container, covered in turn by a white cardboard box with a wood bottom. A Taca employee, Oscar Torres, lifts the box onto a scale. It weighs 448 pounds. Mr. Della Noce writes a check for $813.88.

Using a forklift, Mr. Torres moves the body to a special cargo cart for human remains. He draws blue curtains around the cart's sides to conceal the package as it's being loaded. An hour later, the body is driven out to Flight 711 and lifted electronically into the rear of the 767-200 jet.

No other cargo is piled on top of it. And the cages of animals traveling on the plane are kept as far away as possible.

"We could handle it like any package, but we don't," says Mr. Chavez, who immigrated from Nicaragua 20 years ago. "We treat it with respect."

Respect has become very important in an increasingly competitive business. American Airlines, USAir and a few other carriers have set up separate desks to deal with the shipping of human remains, both on domestic and international flights. USAir's TLC Desk even offers points for each shipment of human remains; by accumulating those points, funeral directors win free trips.

Cargo workers at BWI report a steady increase in repatriations, but most Maryland funeral homes ship out of major international gateways like Dulles.

It's not necessary for a family member or friend to fly on the same plane as a body but many choose to do so. As his friend's body rests on the tarmac at Dulles, Marcos Sandoval steps to the Taca ticket counter and spends $630 of his own money for a round-trip ticket to Guatemala with an open return.

"I'll go to the funeral, and then go home for a few days," Mr. Sandoval says as he heads to the gate. "All this has gotten me to thinking -- what has happened to Agua Blanca?"

A Final Return

Flight 711 touches down in Guatemala just after noon Tuesday, a week after Mr. Guerra was killed. A nephew, Juan Jose Martinez, shows up to meet the body.

In another week, the family will learn that Baltimore police have arrested an 18-year-old suspect in the shooting. But for now, the mystery of who did it only compounds the grief.

During an all-night vigil Tuesday, Mr. Guerra's 86-year-old mother sits in a wheelchair, and his father, 85, shakes from Parkinson's disease. Before her son's death, Mrs. Guerra's worry was that she would die without seeing him again.

The next morning, the couple are part of a crowd of two dozen relatives and friends who gather around the casket at a cemetery full of cypress and eucalyptus trees. Some bang on the box's sides; others cry. Then, a 4-foot-high cement tomb is opened. And Ricardo Guerra's body is lowered into his homeland.

JOE MATHEWS is a reporter for The Sun.

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