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For Immigrants, A Costly Final Trip

Burial at Home Impoverishes Families

By Sarah Park
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2004; Page B01

Baudilio Ramos Osorio came to the United States four years ago so his wife and five children left behind in Guatemala could have an income to live on, even if it was only $100 a month.

Instead, the 37-year-old construction worker was fatally shot outside his Bladensburg apartment door Sept. 5 by a robber who wanted the wad of cash he was about to wire home.

Virgilio Osorio helped send the body of his brother-in-law, Baudilio Ramos Osorio, back to Guatemala after he was killed Sept. 5 in a robbery. (Photos Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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Despite facing similar economic hardships, immigrant neighbors, friends and co-workers at Potomac Construction in Silver Spring chipped in more than $3,600 to repatriate Ramos Osorio's body to Guatemala. They knew how much it meant for his family to bury him in his native soil. His death came just weeks before he had planned to return home permanently.

"The children were excited that he was coming back," said Rosa Miriam, his wife, during a telephone interview from Guatemala after her husband's funeral. Now, she added, "they will never see him . . . again."

As the number of Latino immigrants in the Washington region has grown, so has the exodus of coffins to Central America when someone dies. Returning the body to the homeland is so important that communities here often raise money for strangers to help cover what can be staggering funeral expenses.

Each month, dozens of coffins make the trip home. Such deaths deprive families abroad not only of a loved one but also a benefactor, and reverse their roles, as grieving dependents face the astounding cost and complications of organizing funeral services and repatriation. With increasing numbers appealing for help, leaders are asking them to consider another option, once taboo among some immigrants: cremation.

Some local Spanish-language radio and television personalities and church officials say it is their responsibility to help raise money. But as fatalities and families begging for assistance increase, church leaders have begun to turn them away, citing the costs and asking them to consider cremation as an alternative.

Cremation is a hard sell for some in the community. "If they have only the ashes, they believe [the person] went to hell," said the Rev. Jose Eugenio Hoyos, pastor of Holy Family Church in Dale City, one of the largest Spanish-speaking congregations in Northern Virginia.

There are many traditions, both religious and cultural, that make people hesitant to cremate their loved ones, even if they could save thousands of dollars, Hoyos said. The substantial cost difference makes cremation "one of the most sensitive points in our Hispanic community," said Hoyos, who attracts more than 3,000 Spanish-speaking Catholics to his services each week.

"If you want to send [a coffin], you need to spend $10,000 or more when you have relatives and families who are very poor. Why don't you cremate the body and give the money to the family to start a business?" he said.

That was what Edgar Martinez of the Culmore neighborhood near Baileys Crossroads did when his mother died two years ago.

"My mom was a Spanish woman with tremendous tradition," he said. "She told us about 10 years before she died, 'Why are you going to spend all that money and it will be the same for me?' So we granted her wishes."

Ironically, sometimes the poorest immigrants shun cremation, not realizing that religious institutions such as the Catholic Church now widely accept the practice, said Martinez, who immigrated in 1975.

TACA, the national airline of El Salvador, ships about four coffins of human remains each week from Reagan National Airport to Central America, said Gloria Granillo, general manager of its Washington office.

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