BY VANESSA BAUZA | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Near the end of his brief battle with cancer, Humberto Reyes longed to travel from Miami to his childhood home in Havana so he could die with his mother by his side. But the travel visa he requested from the Cuban government arrived 10 days too late.
Reyes’ last wish would be fulfilled in death.
Like a growing number of Cuban-American families who choose to bury loved ones in their homeland, Reyes’ wife in Miami paid a funeral parlor $3,000 to transport his body back to Cuba in a sealed, gray coffin.
It had been only 14 months since he left Cuba, eager to begin a new life in South Florida after receiving a coveted U.S. visa. Reyes’ family never expected he would return so soon only to be buried in a crypt at Havana’s stately Colon Cemetery.
His mother, Eugenia Estrada, said having Reyes’ body back in Havana provided some comfort in her grief.
“I feel more at ease because I know I have him here. I know I can go to the cemetery and sit there, place flowers, talk to him,” Estrada said recently as she sat by her son’s coffin during a daylong wake at a Havana funeral parlor. “He aspired to other things he thought he couldn’t achieve here, but he wanted to be buried in his homeland,” Estrada, 55, said as relatives and childhood friends offered condolences and bouquets of sunflowers and carnations.
Where immigrants choose to bury their dead is one of the ultimate measures of their identity.
Across the United States, in cities with heavily Latino populations, funeral parlors cater to Mexicans, Dominicans, Ecuadorans and others who routinely transport their dead back to the remote villages or bustling cities where they were born.
In the case of Cuba, many exiles refuse to return to their homeland, even in death, until after President Fidel Castro is no longer in power.
Some have left wills requesting that their bodies be disinterred from Miami cemeteries and sent to Cuba after a democratic transition occurs.
Others, however, are not waiting for a political change.
Funeral directors in Miami and Havana say demand to ship bodies to Cuba, though modest, is growing gradually as the first wave of Cuban exiles who arrived in the 1960’s grows older.
Many will be cremated, then the ashes shipped to Cuba.
“We’re seeing the volume increase annually and the biggest increase has probably been in the last three years,” said Brian Gargis, owner of the Florida Funeral Home in Miami.
Several years ago Gargis was shipping about a dozen remains to Cuba annually. He estimates he shipped about 25 bodies in 2004.
At a popular Havana funeral parlor, Jose Soris, who processes all burial petitions from Cubans emigres around the world, said he received about 125 requests for burial last year from Cuban-Americans, more than from Cubans living in any other country.
“People want to rest where their families are,” said Soris, who has worked in the funeral business for nearly a quarter century. “Even if they lived abroad for 10, 20 or 30 years, even if they were balseros (rafters) or counterrevolutionaries when they arrive here, they are like any other Cuban.”
Some Cuban-Americans who are buried here maintained close ties with their relatives on the island, rekindling ties with frequent visits. Others never returned. They were reunited with their families only in death.
Cuban emigre America Sire left Cuba for Miami in the 1950’s and never returned, losing touch with her Havana family.
One day her niece, Eva Caridad Sire, received a phone call from a long-lost cousin with the news America had died in Miami.
“He identified himself and told me `I want to take (America’s) remains back to Cuba.’ Her last wish was to be buried with her parents in the family mausoleum,” Eva Caridad Sire, 62, said at her Havana home.
The estranged cousins who had not seen each other in more than 50 years placed America Sire’s ashes in the family crypt built in 1918 at the Colon Cemetery. The funeral became a bittersweet family reunion.
Raul Justo Juan Garcia left Cuba in 1957 but he visited his sister here often, becoming her lifeline during hard economic times.
After retiring, he dreamed of splitting his time between Havana and his home in the Orlando area.
Still, Garcia’s sister, Piedad, was surprised to find that after a lifetime in the United States he had no plans to make his adopted country his final resting place.
“I found out the night he died that he wanted to be buried here,” Piedad Garcia, 81, said as she held a picture of her brother. “I don’t know if it was his love for Cuba or his love for us. I imagine he felt nostalgia for his family.”
Less than a dozen U.S. funeral parlors are licensed to ship bodies to Cuba for burial according to the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees the trade and travel embargo.
Processing the paperwork can take weeks. The Cuban Interests Section, which serves as the government’s diplomatic mission in Washington, charges between $500 and $680 in consular fees to process death certificates, burial permits, embalmers’ affidavits and other paperwork, according to several Miami funeral parlors.
The fee is at least four times more than what many countries charge for similar consular services. One Miami funeral director said he prefers not to do business with Cuba.
A spokesman at the Cuban Interests Section said the mission does not keep statistics on the number of bodies shipped from the United States to Cuba.
Some Miami funeral parlors offer package rates of about $3,700 that include airfare to Cuba, the Cuban consular fee, a sealed metal coffin and a wake at a chapel in Miami.