Africa

Why Africans in the UK pay so much to send relatives' bodies home

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"My father's dream was for him to be buried in his birthplace and have the call to prayer resonate over his grave," says Nadia Elbhiri, whose father passed away last year in London.

Ms Elbhiri, who was born and raised in west London, fulfilled her father's dream when she repatriated his body to Morocco last year, where he was laid to rest in Larache, a small fishing village in the north of the country.

"London was always his home but Morocco was always in his heart," she says.

This desire to be buried in the place you were born is strong for many first generation African migrants in the UK.

The demand is so huge among the British Moroccan community that, according to embassy officials, at least 95% of first generation migrants are buried in Morocco.

A system is now in place to cover repatriation costs.

Image caption Londoner Nadia Elbhiri fulfilled her father's wish for his body to be sent from the UK to Morocco when he died

"There are three Moroccan banks which provide free repatriation and a free plane ticket for a relative to assist the transportation of the body back to Morocco," says Souad Talsi from the Council for the Moroccan Community Abroad.

She says that if the deceased person is not registered with a Moroccan bank, his or her next of kin can go to the Moroccan embassy and the government will take care of the repatriation charges which can cost around £7,000 ($10,500).

Image caption Coffins are loaded onto planes before passengers' luggage

But for many African communities in the UK, there is often no official financial support and many families struggle to meet the costs.

'Very stressful'

Ebenezer Commodore found it tough repatriating his uncle's body back to Ghana this year.

Despite the uncle having lived in London for at least 30 years, Mr Commodore's family put him under pressure to fly the body home.

"My uncle's mother rang me and said: 'Bring my son's body back home'. There was no way I was going to argue with the head of the family. You just can't."

So he had to find ways to raise the funds.

Mr Commodore eventually came up with $7,500, and his uncle's body was sent home for burial.

In cases like this, many in the diaspora have to keep their loved one's body in a morgue for several months, until there is enough money.

"This waiting is very stressful for those who have cultures where burial needs to take place quickly," says Fortune Huruva, who coordinates the Zimbabwean Burial Community in Manchester city in northern England.

Image caption Some bodies waiting to be repatriated end up sitting in the morgue for months

Mr Huruva helped set up the society last year due to a high demand from Zimbabweans living across the UK who are desperately trying to send bodies home.

"We found cases of people isolated when they lost someone and they were in despair over how to get the money."

He says many will only get closure when their loved ones are buried in Zimbabwe.

"This also affects the extended family in Zimbabwe as they are the ones who will look after the graves."

But the emotional stress, financial costs and family pressures are so high when it comes to repatriation, that some in the diaspora wonder whether it is really worth it.

"It's a waste of money," says Junior Chankira.

The 40-year old, who was living with her husband Martin in Manchester for 16 years, repatriated his body back to Zimbabwe in 2014.

"If Martin was buried here I would visit his grave every week but now I can't. I come home to an empty flat all for what? For tradition?"

Ms Chankira says that if she had children she would have been able to fight against her husband's family's wish, but she gave in due to emotional stress.

"Our families back home need to understand that our lives are in the UK now. I know when I die, I will see Martin again, regardless of where I am buried."

How to repatriate a body from the UK

  • When the person dies, the funeral director will liaise with the coroner to get a "free from infection" certificate and an embalming certificate
  • A loved one provides the deceased's passport or a photocopy of it
  • The coroner establishes the cause of death before authorising the release of the body
  • The undertakers collect the body from the hospital morgue, weigh and embalm it
  • The family provides clothes for the body or it is dressed in a white gown
  • Documentation is obtained from the country it is going to and then the flight is booked
  • The funeral directors take the body to the airport in a coffin lined with zinc which creates a hermetic seal
  • When the coffin arrives at the airport, the airline take it as priority
  • The coffin goes through a private entry
  • The coffin is X-rayed and goes through security checks
  • The travel company pick up the coffin from a private area at the airport
  • The coffin boards the plane first, before all the luggage
  • At the destination a local ambulance picks up the body
  • Families can check it is the correct body through a window in the coffin

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