When an Immigrant Dies and Nobody Claims the Body

Roberto Rodríguez (Photo via El Diario)

Roberto Rodríguez (Photo via El Diario)

Y cuando yo me muera, entiérrame en mi tierra (And when I die, bury me in my country),” say the lyrics of the song “Carnaval del Barrio” from the Broadway musical “In the Heights.” But if you are an immigrant living in New York and have no relatives here, who will make sure that you are returned home?

That was the case with Roberto Rodríguez, a Mexican from the state of Hidalgo, who was murdered on May 7 in the Bronx. Because he has no relatives here, his body spent days in the Office of Chief Medical Examiner unclaimed.

Rodríguez came to the U.S. illegally in February 2007. His brother, who lives in Mexico, explained that Rodríguez worked at restaurants and in construction in New York.

On May 7, Rodríguez, 30, went to a bodega in the Bronx to buy beer and got into an argument that turned violent. One of the men involved pulled out a knife and stabbed him in the chest. Paramedics took him to Lincoln Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Rodríguez carried an identification card, which allowed the NYPD to identify him and notify friends who lived in the city. They, in turn, told his family in Mexico.

The family was shocked. “My mother is suffering a lot,” said Javier Rodríguez, Roberto’s older brother in a phone interview with El Diario. Javier had not seen his brother in nine years and they had not spoken for two.

The hardest part for them was that, one week after the murder, they had no idea where his brother’s body was being held. Because Roberto had no relatives living in New York with him, his body went unclaimed for days.

El Diario gave them a clue

“My uncle called us to ask if there was anything we could do for the family, since it is harder to make the calls from [Mexico],” said Rhode Island resident Alejandra León, 24, who is a distant relative of Rodríguez. León said that she saw an article on the murder published by El Diario the day after the tragedy where it stated that the body had been taken to Lincoln Medical Center.

However, the medical center said that the hospital had no record of anyone with that name and they referred her to the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), where the bodies of all crime victims in the city are taken. “At the medical examiner’s they told me that they didn’t have anyone with that name either,” said León.

Using photos and descriptions, the relatives were finally able to find out that the morgue had a body with matching characteristics. However, the OCME needed to identify the corpse through scientific means, as documentation such as a driver’s license or municipal ID are not sufficient. In most occasions, a relative identifies the body by looking at a photograph at the OCME’s office. Other valid techniques are fingerprint comparison, medical or dental X-rays and DNA samples.

Julie Bolcer, from the OCME, said that these remote identification methods are especially useful in cases in which relatives or friends are unable to appear at the offices.

When Rodríguez’s body was finally claimed, the next step was to transport it to his native country. For this, the family turned to the Mexican Consulate in New York.

The diplomatic office returned the call made by León’s father, Marco Martínez, and explained the process of identification, paperwork and next steps to carry out the transfer to the state of Hidalgo.

A spokesperson for the consulate said that transporting someone’s remains is complicated. “There are two parts to the process: First, finding a funeral home here, and then one in Mexico,” said the representative. The consulate makes the arrangements with the funeral home and when families do not have the means, like the Rodríguezes, it also covers the costs.

The consulate recommends people who go through a similar situation to contact the diplomatic office first, as they have experience and resources. Every day, the body of at least one Mexican person is transferred from New York to Mexico thanks to the intervention of the consulate. “We transport the bodies of more than 300 Mexicans every year,” said the spokesperson, who estimated that the New York diplomatic office spends at least $500,000 annually transporting the remains of compatriots.

Dying alone in a foreign land

The cases of people who die alone, with no relatives to claim their remains, are common in places with large immigrant populations like New York City. For this reason, when the OCME suspects or learns that a deceased person is from a different country, whether resident or tourist, and that they have no family here, they notify the corresponding consulates.

In the case of Mexicans, when OCME calls the consulate, they use their nationwide diplomatic network to try to locate relatives of the deceased who could claim the body. There are 50 Mexican consulates in the U.S.

In Rodríguez’s case, it was easy to find relatives because they had already contacted the authorities in Hidalgo. The New York consulate’s spokesperson said that they do not know if the bodies of any Mexicans have gone unclaimed. “With such a large population, there is always that possibility,” said the representative, adding that the consulate makes every effort to find relatives of the deceased.

The time that the morgue is required to keep an unclaimed body has not been specified. “If a family is in contact with us, or if we have clues where to find them, we work with them to keep their loved one until they are able to claim the body,” said Bolcer. The OCME employee added that, in cases where no relative is located and the bodies remain unidentified, they continue to try for a number of weeks to exhaust all possibilities. If all attempts fail, the corpse is sent to the city’s public cemetery on Hart Island. Every year, nearly 1,500 unclaimed bodies are buried there in mass graves.

OCME offers services in several languages and has access to interpreters by phone. “No family should be afraid to visit OCME because of their immigration status or spoken language,” said Bolcer.

Roberto Rodríguez’s body was officially identified last Thursday by a friend. The consulate is expecting to send the remains to Hidalgo this week. “Even though we haven’t seen him in a long time, we will welcome him with open arms as a family,” said his brother Javier.


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