NEW YORK—On her deathbed, Rizalina Velasco asked her friend, Alice Culala-Rafferty, to fly her body back to the Philippines and bury her there once she passed away.
Holding Velasco’s hand, it was an emotional moment for Rafferty as she promised to honor and fulfill her friend’s death wish.
“She told me, ‘For one last time, I want my children and family [in the Philippines] to see me.’ It was painful to watch her dying,” said Rafferty, who stood by her friend’s side during the last moments of her life.
Velasco, 58, died of renal and heart failure, on June 19, 2018, in a hospital in San Diego, California.
But her death did not only devastate Rafferty, it suddenly put her into a territory unknown to her: flying her friend’s body to the Philippines costs thousands of dollars and the paperwork associated with repatriation is fraught with complexity.
“It shocked me how expensive it was,” Rafferty added. “And I certainly didn’t anticipate that the whole process was difficult.”
Painful, complicated, expensive
Like Velasco, for families of Filipinos who died in the United States and wanted to be buried in their native land, sending them home on their last flight is a painful, complicated, and pricey ordeal.
The financial, legal, and logistical aspects of death and repatriation vary from where the person died, how much the body shipment weighs, what airlines are willing or available to carry the remains, what type of insurance and, in some instances, how much bureaucratic red tape there is in both places where the body will be flown from and to.
According to some funeral homes, depending on any of those factors, shipping remains from the United States to the Philippines is estimated to cost between $7,000 and $30,000. Shipping from states on the East Coast, because of longer distance and higher taxes, or shipping to regions outside Manila, is often more expensive.
All coffins travel as international freight, and reports say, they must be hermetically sealed. Paperwork requirements also largely vary. If it is death by unnatural causes, say, murder or traffic accidents, police involvement is not uncommon, as opposed to natural causes like heart attack or cancer.
“If the patient, whose family and loved ones are abroad or in another state, is facing a terminal illness, we strongly advise to travel immediately,” according to a doctor at Bellevue Hospital in New York, who requested not to be named. “When the patient ceases to breathe, all mobility rights are lost and, unfortunately, it could be very difficult on the family that he or she left behind.
Challenges of raising funds
Knowing that Velasco had no immediate family in the United States and all her earnings went to her three children going to college in the Philippines, Rafferty contacted some of their friends and went on social media to raise the money for funeral and airline expenses.
Rafferty and another friend also had to deal closely with the funeral home in La Mesa, California, to process and obtain a slew of documents—death and embalming certificates, passport, consulate letter, and airline approval.
On top of that, Rafferty had to break the terrible news to Velasco’s family on the phone and coordinate with them more logistical requirements once the body arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, in Manila.
“I’m so grateful that friends, colleagues from work, and those from our hometown donated money. Checks came in from different states and Canada, and we were able to raise about $10,000,” Rafferty said. “It was challenging. I felt so lucky to find a funeral home that was willing to do all the paperwork for us.”
The total cost for Velasco’s repatriation, including consular fees, embalming and other funeral services and airfreight, was about $7,000. Rafferty said it took nearly 20 days from the day Velasco died to the day her body finally arrived in the Philippines.
Cremation as alternative
Velasco and Rafferty came from the same hometown, in Arayat, Pampanga, but they became close friends since they were reunited more than a decade ago and worked as caregivers in California.
There was a point, Rafferty admitted, when she and other close friends thought of cremating Velasco’s body—and it would have only cost about $2,000 and lesser paperwork.
But Rafferty said she just couldn’t leave work and bring her friend’s ashes to Manila right away. While another person volunteered to bring home the ashes, if they cremated Velasco’s remains, it would have taken a year for her to do so.
“I’m very much relieved that I have fulfilled the promise that I made to my friend,” Rafferty said. “Wherever she [Velasco] is, I know that she is happy and that her soul rests in peace.”