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.
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.
On a recent Sunday, Hoyos asked Granillo to stand up during the homily to punctuate his message: Choose cremation. Granillo said a coffin packaged for air travel takes the space of 12 suitcases -- or six passengers.
"It's not a moneymaking business for us if we're transporting human remains," Granillo said. But "we feel like a responsibility to our people here."
There are no official statistics on the transport of cremated human remains because they are easily concealed in carry-on luggage, according to airline officials. Coffins are easier to track. In the past six months, the Embassy of Guatemala, which issues special licenses to repatriate bodies, has seen a sharp increase in requests. "We used to have one or two [bodies] per month" in the Washington area, said Karla Juarez, the consular official in charge of human remains. "Now it's one or two per day or week."
Latin America is the most common destination for human remains shipped from the United States for some airlines. Through August of this year, of 692 human remains shipped by Continental Airlines, 505 were sent to Latin America and the Caribbean. During the same time, 2,125 of the 2,148 human remains shipped by American Airlines went to the same region.
"Unfortunately, people come here for a better life, and they find sudden death," said Alejandro Carrasco, the host of the Spanish-language morning talk show "Heating Up the Morning" on WACA-AM (1540). "It's a common thing."
After car accidents, violent crimes or other tragic events, families sometimes stop by Carrasco's Wheaton radio station, Radio America. His is one of several public faces on an informal community network that supports grieving families. Every year, Carrasco, the host and station owner, organizes on-air fundraisers to help families, he said. "It's not rare to find someone waiting in the lobby after the show at 10 o'clock to ask for help," he said.
Erick Mauricio Guerra may be the next in line. Guerra, 25, and his cousin Alfredo Rafael Reyes, 23, were best friends in El Salvador. They grew up together in a coastal, eastern province recognized by economists for its shrinking towns, which are constantly losing young men heading to work in the United States.
A few years ago, Guerra settled in Silver Spring, working in a restaurant and paving the way for Reyes, who arrived about two months ago. Guerra said he noticed their boyhood relationship changing because he worked 12-hour shifts and Reyes painted during the day.
Reyes, an orphan who was trying to pay for his grandfather's medical expenses in El Salvador, was starting over. "He came to make a new life," Guerra said.
On Sept. 20, Reyes left his apartment to buy a phone card to call friends in El Salvador, said Abel Quintanilla, a longtime friend. About midnight, Reyes was struck and killed by a car in Wheaton. His body was shipped back to El Salvador and received by Quintanilla's father.
Guerra said he does not know how he will raise thousands to pay for all the expenses. He hopes that a fundraiser sponsored by a Spanish-language, evangelical Christian radio station will help defray the costs.
Univision sportscaster Oscar Burgos recently helped organize a fundraiser after a Guatemalan dishwasher struggling to pay for his wife's funeral expenses approached him for help.
"Family members who don't have the resources expose the need to the community that all the time responds so generously," Carrasco said. "The Latino community has a great heart."
The significance of returning to their homeland is "part of the collective memory of the people, and they will go to great, great extremes to send them home," said the Rev. Virgilio P. Elizondo, a professor of Latin American spirituality at the University of Notre Dame. It is often their "first wish" to return because of a "very profound attachment to the earth," he said.
"Even if you have built your family here, you want to go where you were born," said Granillo, who has run TACA's Washington office for 25 years. She was born in Nicaragua but raised her children and grandchildren in the States. "I die [a second death] if I'm buried here," she said.
That belief was shared by the Ramos Osorio family. Two weeks ago, relatives came out to meet his coffin on an early-morning flight. They buried him near his father and two brothers, all of whom were shot to death in violent incidents in Guatemala more than a decade ago.