The Long Trip Home: The Intricacies of Repatriating the Dead in the COVID Era

What was already a fraught process has become even more convoluted in the COVID-19 era. Bureaucratic holdups and infrequent international flights have resulted in weeks- and months-long delays. At the beginning of the pandemic, countries shut down airports and refused overseas shipments of corpses—even of people who had not died of the virus. Even when countries reopened their borders, some officials remained hesitant to accept bodies from the United States, a COVID-19 hot spot. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that there is little risk of coronavirus transmission from dead bodies, Torres told me that one consulate asked him to obtain a letter from a doctor that explicitly stated the body was COVID-free.

When the sealed casket was ready to fly, Torres took a photo of the shipping box to send to his bosses at the funeral home, then waved goodbye to Twaruszka and headed to the subway to finish delivering documents. Twaruszka drove the casket to the funeral home’s Queens location, where employees would take it to the airport. Previously, there were daily flights between Paris and Nouméa; because of the pandemic the route was only flown weekly. While waiting in Paris, Enzo’s casket would be held in airport storage with other cargo, like mail and foodstuffs. His burial was scheduled for January 20th, five weeks after he died.

Late on the evening of December 12th, Jennifer Corigliano heard the doorbell ring at her house in La Flèche, France. It was a police officer who had come to notify Jennifer that her oldest son, Enzo, a student at St. Lawrence University, in Canton, New York, had died by suicide. After the officer left, Jennifer noticed that the clock read 23:23, which made her pause. She and Enzo used to send each other messages when something significant happened at a mirror hour—like 12:12 or 20:20—one of many jokes and superstitions that they shared.

Jennifer called her husband, Grégory, who still lived in Nouméa, and asked him to travel with her to New York. Then she got in her car to break the news to her younger son, who lived in a town seven hours south. “It was too hard for me to call my little son to tell him his brother passed away,” she recalled, but she also couldn’t bear to sit alone with her grief. As she drove through the night, Jennifer mapped out her next steps. She had to be with Enzo, and she had to bring him back to Nouméa. “The only thing in my mind was, I need to go see him,” she said. “I need to tell him I’m here. I need to touch him.”

A few days later, Jennifer and Grégory’s request to travel to the U.S. was approved. Once in New York, seeing for the first time the vast, forested region where Enzo had studied for nearly two years, they checked into a hotel to isolate for five days. The couple, in the process of filing for divorce but still amiable, spent anguished days eating French fries and ordering room service. When they were released from quarantine, on Christmas Eve, they were finally able to see Enzo’s body, laid in a casket at a Canton funeral home. “It was like when you don’t see somebody and then you see him again for the first time,” Jennifer told me. “I felt like that. I haven’t seen my son for a long time, and I see him again.” Over the next few days, she and Grégory closed Enzo’s bank account and cleaned out his dorm room—“a real, messy boy room,” Jennifer told me. She ordered a mahogany casket in honor of her son’s school colors, scarlet and brown.

Enzo, an internationally ranked squash player who competed for the French junior national team as a teen-ager, had moved to Canton to play at the American collegiate level. He was a “magician” on the court, said Grégory, a coach who, otherwise demure when speaking with me, lit up when the conversation turned to his son’s athletic abilities. A “showman,” Jennifer added. He was slender and muscular, with highlighted hair that tapered near his neck and a constellation of piercings in his ears. His playing style was like that of a dancer; he was graceful even when lunging across the court. There was no question his parents would return his body to Nouméa, where he was a local hero.

Caskets are stored at the funeral home before they are transported.

But how they’d transport his body nearly nine thousand miles during a pandemic was less clear. The funeral home that had collected Enzo’s body was unable to ship it internationally, so its director asked Matthew Connors, of Bergen Funeral Service, to get the casket to Nouméa. Jennifer and Grégory returned to New Caledonia, and a funeral-home employee drove the casket six hours south to Hasbrouck Heights, where the body was stored with a handful of others, some of which had been sitting there for weeks. Connors and his colleagues at the funeral home have an uncommon level of experience working with grieving families abroad; in the past, the company handled cases involving American college students who died during semesters away, immigrants who wanted to be buried in their home countries, car crashes, drownings, medical procedures gone wrong—losses made even more difficult for their distance.

In a way, the pandemic has made all deaths distant. At a time when mourning rituals are completely upended, and many spend their final days isolated from family, it’s as though everyone—even those close to home—is dying in a foreign country. When my own grandfather died, of COVID-19, in a Dallas-area nursing home last July, the local funeral director offered to ship his ashes to my parents’ doorstep, in Southern California, through the United States Postal Service. He had already suffered the indignity of a COVID death—my mother and I, unable to enter his facility, had watched him gasp for air from a window—and we couldn’t bear for his remains to be dropped off by the mailman like a package. Instead, I waited eleven days in Texas until he was cremated, spending one muggy night camping and the others at a friend’s house in Houston. When my grandfather’s ashes were ready, I returned to Dallas to pick them up, strapped his urn into the passenger seat, and drove more than a thousand miles home.

Back in California, I read stories of families around the world who, like mine, agonized over how to dignify their own deceased during lockdown. Months later, when I saw Enzo’s casket at the consulate in Manhattan, I wanted to learn how his family was coping with such a painful task. Talking to Jennifer, I recognized something in the way she spoke about the love and responsibility bound up in bringing her son home. She sounded like my mother, and like me.

For a time last spring, Bergen Funeral Service had to stop shipping remains overseas altogether. Inundated with bodies, the funeral home didn’t have the space to store cadavers for long periods of time. “A lot of families chose to have cremation, a lot of them chose to have a local burial here instead,” Connors, the funeral-home director who oversees the company’s transportation of remains, said. “There was nothing they could really do.”

Connors invited me to his family’s Hasbrouck Heights funeral home, a two-story house across from a Catholic school in a suburban neighborhood about twelve miles west of Manhattan. Connors, a third-generation funeral worker, spent childhood afternoons in the building, and eventually started working there as a young adult, delivering bodies and documents for shipments.

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