‘Global Body Transfer’

by Peter Spiro

I was struck by two separate items in the NYT on successive days earlier this week involving the return of the bodies of dead immigrants to their homelands. Both were tragic stories, one involving a Mexican pizza delivery person shot in Greenwich Village, the other a family of Malians who died in a home fire in the Bronx. But I suspect that such “repatriations” are dramatically on the rise in non-newsworthy cases as well. Many funeral services outfits offer “worldwide transport”, and in some cases it appears to be a substantial business (several Poles die each week in Ireland, for instance, and many end up going home, enough that Polish funeral directors are competing for the business).

I don’t know that there’s much in the way of law that’s implicated by this new transboundary flow. I’m sure the health aspects are seen to, and one hopes that states don’t deal with this under some cognate of immigration control (I assume, for instance, that someone can be legally admitted as a dead person into the United States where she couldn’t have entered as a live one). But it does add yet another dimension to diaspora identity. In the old days, immigrants in many cases couldn’t have held out too much hope of returning home alive and certainly not dead. Today, some are being buried in ancestral homelands they never visited. To the extent the ultimate repatriation becomes more routine, it may just be another new way in which diasporic communities can sustain themselves.


6 Responses

  1. What’s really interesting is how much attention this is getting, despite the fact that it’s really not a terribly new phenomenon. In an Afghan refugee camp I visited in Peshawar, for example, the only shop is a coffin shop so that the refugees (many of whom have never been to Afghanistan – a mere 20 miles away across the Khyber Pass) can be brought home when they die. Aer Lingus, the Irish (newly privatised) airline, has done a steady line in transporting corpses for years now as well, including people who’d been born abroad or who had rarely if ever been home for decades. As for the Polish example – this is fascinating. Not only do Poles want to be buried at home, but they also seem to take their children home to Poland for first communions and confirmations en masse instead of, in the cases I’m aware of, having them go through the sacraments of the Catholic Church in ‘heathen’ Ireland 😀

  2. one hopes that states don’t deal with this under some cognate of immigration control (I assume, for instance, that someone can be legally admitted as a dead person into the United States where she couldn’t have entered as a live one)

    Your corpse is not a person, it’s a lump of meat, with a few legal protections regarding desecrating it. I don’t see any reasons aside from health concerns that it should be barred from crossing country borders.

    Why would you deny someone’s request to be buried in your country?

  3. Matthew, I assume you’re right, and I can’t think of any reason not to allow burial, even if it’s not your country (“finally, I got to America!”).

    As for Fiona’s point that this is nothing new: at some point it must have been new (although I guess one could always have one’s ashes sent home in the mail), and I imagine it’s gotten much more common over the last decade with dramatic declines in transportation costs, to the point that it may become routine. Interesting about Polish Catholics – another example of sustaining homeland identity on an intergenerational basis, like Caribbean immigrants in the US who send their kids home for primary schooling.

  4. Well, there are reasons to bar burial, but not what I consider good ones. Burial could be prohibited as a way of denying legitimacy to a people (Says, Kurds in Turkey, for example, not that I’m implying such a situation exists.)

    A particularly despised or heroic figure could also be a burden on the area where he is buried, although this isn’t anything that can’t be handled by normal property law.

  5. Matthew, Interesting further thought. So say the Shah of Iran wants to be buried on US soil, and that’s likely to wreak more havoc in our relations, what legal authority would the President have to bar entry of the body? I wonder if there’s some catch-all provision (equivalent to powers found in the immigration act) of customs law that could be put to work there.

  6. Rights to transport home for burial and testament of personal property for aliens who died in a foreign land were actually a very big deal in the founding era. There are terms in all of the early US treaties. See, e.g., art IV of the 1782 U.S. Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the Netherlands; art XI of 1785 U.S.-Prussia Treaty. The treaty terms were handy because, as Vattel observed, “with how little justice the treasury in some states lays claim to the effects left there by a foreigner at his death.”

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