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Funerals for Hispanics present challenges for directors

BIRMINGHAM (AP) — Language barriers, longer visitations and shipping bodies internationally are some of the challenges facing funeral directors in Alabama as the number of Hispanics living — and dying — in the state grows.

Albertville Funeral Home sees about 20 Hispanic funerals a year, with families coming from DeKalb, Etowah, Blount, Madison and Marshall counties, said general manager Rick Brown.

Heidi Alvarez of Southside said she was called to Marshall County three years ago to help translate for a Guatemalan family after a young woman was seriously injured in a car accident.

The woman died soon after, and Alvarez stayed for several days to help the family organize the funeral.

"I don't think her husband could read and write," Alvarez said.

"I ended up doing a lot for them, even singing at the service."

With friends and family working different hours, Hispanic funerals sometimes require longer visitations. Brown said he has kept the funeral home open as late as 11 p.m. for visitors getting off late at the nearby chicken plant. Alvarez said the family took up a collection at the Guatemalan funeral she translated so the visitation could stretch past normal visiting hours to midnight.

Brown and Bobby Berryhill, the Madison County coroner and owner of Huntsville's Berryhill Funeral Home, said most Hispanic families want the bodies shipped back to their home country. They said that involves a complicated process that can take three weeks or longer.

A death certificate and an "apostle seal" — the legal authorization to ship the body out of state — must be sent to Montgomery. Then about six forms have to be prepared and translated for the trip. For Mexico, for example, the funeral home must provide an embalming certificate, certify the dead person had no infectious diseases, get a transit permit and provide other papers.

Once all those steps have been completed, it can take up to 10 days to arrange a flight for the body. And airlines generally won't transport a body unless a funeral home in the destination country will be there to receive the body.

The arrangements can cost up to $6,000. Brown told the News that most families he sees deal in cash because they don't have checks or credit cards. Often lacking life insurance because they're illegal, families frequently rely on their immigrant communities for donations.

Brown said he remembers one family paying a $5,000 funeral bill with Wal-Mart bags full of crumpled bills.

Even Hispanics who speak fluent English may be too overcome with grief to make funeral arrangements in their second tongue. But Berryhill said funeral directors know what grieving families need.

"You may not understand," he said, "but you know what's going on."

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Information from: The Birmingham News

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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