A difficult journey home
Families navigate process of sending loved ones’ remains overseas from Montgomery
Death in Montgomery County can lead to a long, difficult task — returning a loved one’s body to a foreign final resting place.
According to the U.S. Census, about 31.8 percent of Montgomery residents are foreign-born.
In recent months, two Montgomery County families had to go through this process.
Don Pen Soh Boma, a Burtonsville resident and former honor student at Paint Branch High School, drowned in Ocean City, Md., in June.
Boma was 18 years old. He was born in Cameroon and lived in Montgomery County with his uncle Augustine Fuondjing, who adopted him.
Fuondjing wanted his son to have better opportunities in life. Boma planned to study computer engineering at Towson University.
“It is still difficult because he was so young. Especially when I get back home. It is hard to take. There are days that I am really, really down,” Fuondjing said.
On April 29, Tsehay Demeke Woldemanuel, 34, was struck by a Ride-On bus in Wheaton. She died from her injuries at Suburban Hospital.
Woldemanuel was from Ethiopia.
At a fundraising website, she is described as having a beautiful smile and unconditional love for her family. She worked two jobs to support herself and her mother, who lives in Ethiopia.
Fuondjing said that sending Boma’s remains back to Cameroon was an expensive and difficult process.
“It was not that easy. We were not expecting him to die. … The home country requires certain documents; they wanted to know the cause of death,” Fuondjing said.
He said the family spent approximately $20,000 on a casket, funeral home expenses, and an airline ticket to Cameroon for Fuondjing.
Fuondjing’s friends helped with donations, but most money came from relatives.
Woldemanuel’s friends and family opened an online Gofundme account to raise the money to transport her body to Ethiopia. According to the website, between Gofundme and boxes placed in businesses in the D.C. area, $12,323 was raised.
Shipping a body overseas is not simple.
According to Corey Eggers, project manager at the International Division of National Funeral Directors Association, costs and policies can vary from country to country.
“There are certain steps you have to go through in each country. … There are different parts of the process, and they [relatives] will have to work with a funeral director here in the U.S.,” Eggers said.
Eggers said the Transportation Security Administration has a policy called “known shipper,” which was developed in 2004 to “impose significant barriers to terrorists seeking to use the air cargo transportation system for malicious purposes.”
Eggers said some countries have casket requirements. Also, establishing contact with consulates sometimes takes longer than expected.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to get someone on the phone,” Eggers said.
Certified copies of a death certificate, a burial transit permit, an embalmer’s affidavit, and a letter of non-contagious disease are some of the documents needed for countries such as Ethiopia and Cameroon.
Cameroon requires that the family establish personal contact with Cameroon’s embassy and provide cemetery information. The embassy requests that all documents must be sent to the consulate in Washington, D.C.
Eggers said shipping alone can cost up to $2,000.
To send remains of a loved one to places such as Israel can be difficult, as well. According to Jewish law, Jews must be buried immediately after their death.
“Sometimes you can appeal … [and say] this is a religious custom, and we need to get this expedited. … But it’s really out of the control of the funeral director,” Eggers said.
What happens when there’s no legal next of kin or no one claims a body?
According to Bruce Goldfarb, a spokesman for the Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, if a body is unclaimed, the remains are transferred to the State Anatomy Board for medical research and education.
Eggers said it’s “pretty close to impossible” for a family to send someone’s remains to another country on its own.
“They need to work with a funeral director or a mortuary. If they don’t, there’s a good chance to be held up in customs,” Eggers said.