MIAMI (Reuters) - “Get my bones back to Cuba.”
That’s the last wish that Miami funeral director Rafaiy Alkhalifa says he has heard time and again from many of his “Cuba-bound” clients or their loved ones since 1994.
That’s the year Alkhalifa and his Auxiliadora Funeraria Nacional funeral home first began shipping recently deceased Cuban exiles back across the Florida Straits to their final resting place in Cuba.
An exception to the otherwise tight U.S. trade embargo imposed on Cuba in 1962, the airborne burial business has been moving ahead steadily ever since, according to Alkhalifa, a 64-year-old native of Guyana.
“The gist of this whole thing is family first,” Alkhalifa told Reuters in a recent interview, before presenting a gold-trimmed business card with a trifecta of toll free numbers including 1-800 FUNERAL, 1-800 CREMATION AND 1-888 INGRIEF.
“It’s not about money. It’s not about money at all.”
Alkhalifa says he has been shipping between 12 and 20 late exiles by charter flight home to Cuba every month since U.S. and Cuban authorities made it the first U.S.-based funeral home with permission to transport cadavers between two countries long seen as implacable enemies.
The business is located just a few blocks north of Miami’s Little Havana district, the traditional heartland of exile opposition to former Cuban President Fidel Castro since his revolution nearly 50 years ago.
Many older exiles among the 650,000 Cubans in Miami have vowed they would never return to the island until Castro and his younger brother President Raul Castro are out of power.
But Alkhalifa has seen how family and nationality or a sense of belonging can transcend politics when people face the ultimate decision about how best to deal with death.
“They want to go home because it’s the fatherland,” he said, speaking of one motive driving those dying exiles who chose to return to Cuba. “Motherland, fatherland, whatever you want to call it. These are things that are very important to people.”
Additionally, he said many exiles had family members in Cuba who they hadn’t seen for years, people who want to see them buried where the family can visit.
“It’s reconciliation even in death,” Alkhalifa said.
Money could be another motive for someone favoring a burial in Cuba over interment in Miami.
A burial in Miami is unlikely to cost less than $7,000.
For a burial in Cuba, however, everything, including an obligatory embalming and shipping in a specially made, sealed coffin, comes to just $4,600.
There is no cost for a grave in Cuba itself, Alkhalifa said. “It’s definitely less than if you bury somebody here.”
Alkhalifa added it usually takes no more than about two weeks to get the paperwork approved to ship a body to Cuba.
But in the case of Alberto Andres Mena, an exile who left Cuba for the United States along with 125,000 other Cubans during the Mariel boat-lift in 1980, two months went by between his death of heart failure on May 5 and his return home on July 4.
Alkhalifa blamed the delay, and Mena’s long stay in a refrigerated storage facility, on staff rotation at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
The 71-year-old Mena’s wife, Teodomira Mena, said he wanted to return home because he had left four children back in Cuba and had not seen them since he left the communist-ruled island.
“He had gone almost 29 years without seeing them,” she said. “He suffered a lot in this country.”
She said she was referring not just to his long separation from his children but to the fact that he never really seemed to feel at home in Miami.
“He was full of complaints,” Teodomira Mena said. “He always lamented being here.”
Alkhalifa said the bodies he ships off to final resting places in Cuba are sent in Mexican-made caskets, which are small enough to fit the tight dimensions of Cuban crypts and burial plots. U.S. coffins are too large.
In Mexico, the Industrias Astramex company that produces the metal caskets said it ships about 60 per month to Miami and that roughly half of them end up in Cuba.
Additional reporting by Mariano Castillo in Mexico; Editing by Michael Christie and Eddie Evans