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Funeral homes tailoring services to Hispanics

By Yvonne Wingett

The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX – In hushed voices, the mourners crowded into a central Phoenix home to pray for the soul of Sergio Chavez-Chavez, dead of a gunshot wound at 28.

A 3-foot crucifix of Jesus hung next to his open casket. Above the coffin were three photos, a cross and Chavez’s favorite shirt with the slogan “Viva Mexico.” Led by a Catholic deacon, friends and relatives prayed and wept in the small living room, emptied to make room for the visitation.

The service, overseen by La Paz Funeral Home, allowed for more intimacy than a traditional service. By catering to Latinos, La Paz has built a thriving business on death. In this area of Arizona, home to more than 1 million Hispanics and about 85 funeral homes, funeral directors are racing to adapt to the needs of the burgeoning immigrant and U.S.-born Hispanic clientele.

They are doing it by offering in-home funeral services like Chavez’s, typical in Mexico and other Latin American countries. They are offering culturally themed programs that can include mariachis, overnight visitations and family feasts in mortuaries. They are putting up welcoming signs announcing “Se habla español” and buying newspaper ads branded with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

It’s uncertain how many funeral firms specialize in Hispanic-themed services, but many are scrambling to hire Spanish-speakers and Hispanic funeral directors, planners and arrangers who understand death customs among Latinos.

“Up until recently, there still has been a dramatic amount of folks being shipped to Mexico for burial,” said Brian Shake, regional vice president for Stewart Enterprises Inc., a national funeral company. “But as the older generations age, instead of shipping back to Mexico, they’re beginning to choose the United States for burials.”

At funeral homes that specialize in Latino funerals, many families bring in clothes and dress their loved ones themselves. Some fix the dead’s hair and stitch or pin into the fabric-lined coffins images of the Virgin Mary, photos, rosaries, books, jewelry and poems. Some families request in-home visits or daylong services with rosary services and other traditional Catholic prayers.

Viewings can last overnight, and mourners tend to grieve loudly and grip the lip of caskets and kiss the cheeks of their dead loved ones.

La Paz’s low-cost, high-volume business model attracts families who don’t have a lot to spend. Typical prices range from the “Economy Burial” package for $1,799 to the “International Shipout” deal for $1,399 plus airfare. La Paz often refrigerates bodies at no extra charge if families need to raise money through carwashes and donations.

Funeral arrangers take care of paperwork that can be confusing to families, especially immigrants. They work with the Consul General of Mexico in Phoenix, county and state officials, and airlines to ship bodies to Mexico and other parts of the world. At the same time, they will coordinate with families and funeral homes in Mexico to pick up the bodies and arrange for ceremonies there.

“They think it’s like buying a ticket and getting on a plane,” said Chela Flores Harding, owner of La Paz funeral homes. “It’s not. It’s a long, drawn-out process. For the families, it’s very complicated. They expect things to go much quicker.”

Service International Corp. operates 35 funeral-related businesses in Arizona and more than 1,400 nationally. At least three locations in Phoenix and Tucson will be converted to carry the Hispanic theme, said Darin Sommer, vice president of the company’s SCI Hispana division.

In the last four years, the company has transformed 21 homes in Chicago, Texas and Los Angeles and plans on converting more homes and some cemeteries across the United States in heavily Hispanic communities. “The key to success is appealing to their eyes, ears and heart,” Sommer said.

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