I have been exploring the funeral and burial customs of impoverished people in the Latino community of upstate South Carolina. I began doing this recently after considering the high cost of funerals in general.
Some impoverished Latinos could not claim the bodies of their deceased because they could not pay for a burial or have the loved one returned to the home country.
Horror stories from the field made me uncomfortable. As an educator, my mind scanned “disenfranchised grief” sections of my textbooks and workshop handouts.
Not being able to grieve and mourn according to custom is a great loss to bear. The mourning is made worse in environments where the grievers are not recognized by the larger society as people entitled to experience their grief.
I spoke with local undertakers, coroners, pastors of Latino congregations and a Latino talk-show host. Their stories and information transformed me.
I started advocating for “sensitivity to cultural diversity” and “trans-cultural care” to be integrated into nursing curricula back in the mid 1990s, but I had missed the bigger picture and failed to connect many of the dots.
Local undertakers told me they often work with loved ones of the deceased over a period of time until enough money is raised to return the body to the homeland. That journey involves linguistic barriers as well as legal issues of identity.
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Staff at coroners’ offices said they seek the identity of the deceased through a national database of fingerprints. They usually cremate after 30 days. In some municipalities, loved ones can come forward and pay the cost of the cremation and receive the remains.
One Latino pastor said he understood the problem of burial but offered that his congregation does not get involved in burial cost when the deceased has contributed nothing to the congregation. Another pastor grew uncomfortable with my questions.
Still another pastor wanted me to become better educated about the whole issue of immigration. While he commended my concerns about the pain involved in abandoning the deceased, he wanted me to understand a greater grief and loss: deciding to leave one’s homeland. That decision draws forth the fact there is no way for the family to survive without leaving.
The pastor described the work of his congregation, which reaches out to newly arrived people in hopes of rescuing them from the “handlers” who essentially traffic people across the border and cultivate a sense of dependency.
The pain of improper burials and disenfranchised grief may not be as difficult as the grief of leaving the homeland and all that is required in such a journey. So what should our ministry to the alien be? My prayer:
“Lord, may I never be found inventing reasons for ignoring the poor. Keep me mindful of my call to serve and to never ask why. Lord, I never want to ignore those in need or take advantage of hired people. May I never deprive the alien or the fatherless. Thank you for your Word that teaches me to be a helper, an extension of your goodness. We all bear your image, and your laws are the same for all of us.”
Sybil Smith, a registered nurse, lives in Lyman, S.C., and is an independent consultant for ministries of health.