While conducting research on health care and end-of-life options for older adults in Mexico, and volunteering at a Guadalajara palliative care hospital and hospice, I have witnessed both expected and unexpected deaths of Americans, Canadians, other foreigners, and Mexicans. In the case of Mexicans, the procedure following death is almost seamless, with rare exceptions.
The question is, how will you prepare for such a situation if you are not Mexican?
Here is some of what I’ve learned in expat havens from Alamos to Ajijic, Mazatlan to Merida, and Tijuana to Oaxaca:
If you wish to save your family, other loved ones, and your neighbor’s considerable grief and time, it is important to understand what is involved when a foreigner dies in Mexico, and, to have a plan in place.
This goes for 18-year olds, 40-year olds, and especially for all persons over age 60.
Even though the subject is one many of us prefer to avoid, family and friends back home, as well as your local neighbors, will be grateful if you plan ahead. Planning ahead might even give you peace of mind!
WHAT TO BE AWARE OF
The system of law is different. If you are from Canada, England, or the U.S., you are accustomed to common law, not civil law based on the Napoleonic code. The rules governing the disposition of human remains in Mexico are not the same as at home. The time and bureaucratic requirements required to negotiate the Mexican system, post-death, can be daunting.
Mexico is a country with predominantly Catholic traditions. These traditions influence choices. If you are Catholic, the system may seem familiar, such as burial over cremation. If you had chosen to live in Buddhist or Hindu Asia, cremation would be a relatively easy matter involving fewer steps as cremation is common practice. Or, you could have opted for a Tibetan sky burial.
The Mexican culture, language, and way of thinking are unique. Most of all, procedures may be unfamiliar and complex.
PREPARING AHEAD FOR YOUR DEMISE & DISPOSITION OF REMAINS IN MEXICO
The key Mexican legal document you need to acquire for best outcomes is a “declaración Jurada ” (more or less the equivalent of a living will) stating burial or cremation wishes. This document must be created before your demise. The declaración jurada will almost always ensure your plan is followed. It is usually prepared by notaries (notarios). Current costs are approximately 1000 pesos in Jalisco state, for example. Note: powers of attorney (equally important for pre-death and health care complications), and wills regarding your property are separate documents. Once a year, older adults can receive a 50% discount in the month of September for wills relating to property (home, car, jewelry, and other assets).
Note: Some funeral homes offer notarized Letters of Intention for cremation or burial. This, in addition to your declaración jurada, is a somewhat reliable back-up. These funeral homes will give you a card to carry on your person at all times; the card contains your name and other details plus their contact information. Not all funeral homes offer this service.
Your Advance Health Care Directive or Five Wishes from home is not valid in Mexico even if notarized, apostilled and translated into Spanish unless you get lucky.
You are best off incorporating preferences from your Advance Directive or Five Wishes (https://fivewishes.org/) in your Mexican legal document. Most legal documents for foreigners, unless you live in a rural area, are written in Spanish on one half of the page, and English on the other. Again, this is the most important document you can obtain relating to your end-of-life wishes. Note: there is no guarantee your healthcare requests will be honored by doctors, hospitals, and ambulance services, just as in your home country. Your cremation request will be honored if it is in writing and your papers are presented.
Burial in Mexico
Burial in Mexico could be easier than shipping a casket home and less expensive, with one exception. Many cemeteries offer plots for purchase for a set period of time (usually six years) with the understanding that remains will be removed and buried elsewhere at the end of that period. Arrangements must be made in advance for the relocation of remains or they may be removed to a communal grave.
Note: There is less and less room at cemeteries in heavily populated areas. According to some city Pantheon (cemetery) directors, families with plots are burying loved ones 10 persons deep.
The population from Chapala to Jocotopec (north Lake Chapala) just south of Guadalajara, for example, is around 100,000, including 20,000 full-time ex-pats (numbers not exact). There are approximately 80+ deaths per year among the ex-pat community according to Chapala’s Registro Civil, Civil Registry office.
Ajijic Cemetery along Lake Chapala serves a population of 10,000. It is full unless a family will sell you a plot there.
Cremation in Mexico
When death occurs in Mexico, local practices will govern how quickly a cremation can take place. In the state of Jalisco, burial or cremation must be within 48 hours, or the body must be embalmed. There is one exception – a body can lie up to 30 days in refrigeration (if refrigeration is available and with permission) awaiting family members from out of the country to view the remains. Then cremation or interment will take place.
In Mexico your legal next-of-kin may request cremation or interment if you do not have a notarized living will with end-of-life wishes. It is unwise, however, to depend on good luck or miracles in this situation – again, best to have a Mexican living will.
Some churches in Mexico offer space for cremated remains in an urn or box in a mini-mausoleum setting. Here again, you are usually paying for a specified number of years.
Note: According to a U.S. Consulate website, “if the deceased is to be transported between states in Mexico for cremation, the body must be embalmed. If the body is to be transported over 100 km a special transit permit is also required.”
By law, a body is to be identified ahead of time. In Guadalajara, for example, no toe tags are used. Photos are taken of faces before the procedure. The name of the person is also written on a ticket. That ticket, serving as I.D., is inserted into a slot space outside the crematory machine.
Shipment of Remains Outside of Mexico
If you are American and wish your ashes or remains sent home, there is another step for a loved one or trusted advocate to complete after all Mexican death-related documents are obtained. (If you are Canadian, see the links in the Resources section below. Canadian procedures are not the same as American procedures). If your body has been cremated, a cremation certificate from the funeral home, an affidavit from the funeral director, and an original copy of the death certificate must be delivered to the nearest Embassy or Consulate. (See U.S. Government 7 FAM 258 DOCUMENTS TO ACCOMPANY REMAINS; these regulations were last updated January 18, 2013). If you die in a small city or rural area and cremation is your preference, understand the expense, effort, and permissions needed to fulfill this requirement.
According to the U.S. government, a consular officer will prepare a consular mortuary certificate to ensure “orderly shipment of remains and facilitate U.S. Customs clearance.” The certificate will be delivered to you in English and it will contain essential information including cause of death.
As for shipment of remains in a casket, a U.S. consular officer will work to ensure that the Mexican funeral director and American funeral director are in communication to guarantee preparation of remains complies with local, U.S. Department of State, and federal requirements. All corpses going to the U.S. must be embalmed.
Also note: DHL, Federal Express, and embassy diplomatic pouches cannot be used to ship cremated remains out of the country. There is no customs fee to ship remains to the U.S. Note: Shipment of remains outside of Mexico involves not only high cost but red tape. Consider buying repatriation of remains insurance.
Other Details to Consider for Smoother Disposition of Remains in Mexico:
Someone to Act on Your Behalf
Are you living alone? If so, do you have at least three friends or neighbors who will follow through with your wishes and instructions if you die in Mexico? Note: Do not depend on legal next-of-kin (spouse) or significant other to represent you. What if you both die in a car accident or other tragedy? It is best to delegate additional persons or a trusted attorney to take charge.
Do you have a working relationship with a medical doctor who can be called immediately by the designated person or persons to declare the cause of death and write the death certificate so an autopsy can be avoided? Do not call 911, an ambulance (Cruz Roja or Cruz Verde), the fire department (bomberos), or the police. Call the doctor, obtain the death certificate (Certificado de Defunción – delivered with three copies), then call the funeral home. The copies of the certificate are then delivered to the local Civil Registry (Registro Civil), the Ministry of Public Health, and INEGI (the National Statistics Office).
In places with a number of expatriates, funeral homes sometimes have doctors who can appear if your doctor is on vacation, but most doctors prefer a relationship with you before they will appear and sign a death certificate. Note: If foul play is suspected, an autopsy will be required and the police and fiscalia (the district attorney’s forensics department) will be involved.
Have you selected a funeral service or transporter to collect your body and handle your remains? Using a funeral service is necessary for most of Mexico unless you are in a remote, rural village where you may be buried in a local cemetery.
Do you want your organs donated? Mexico City’s UNAM, Programa de Donacion de Cuerpo, for example, will welcome your body for science. Are your wishes written in your living will or indicated on your Mexican driver’s license?
Where to Place Remains. Do you wish your remains to stay in the country or shipped home?
Someone to Act on Your Behalf, Part 2
Again, designate at least three people to be in charge of your affairs in Mexico in the immediate aftermath of your death. This is recommended based on witnessing situations in Ecuador and Mexico over a period of seven years and accompanying distressed family members. Your ex-pat friends may travel quite a bit or may not be present at the time.
Do your designees know which funeral service or transporter will collect your body? Do they know where your legal documents (passport, INM immigration green card, living will – specific for cremation or burial, contact info) are and how to pay the funeral home if not pre-paid? Do they know where to locate your bank card, cash, and/or documents 24/7? Plan on leaving about 20,000 Mexican pesos or more for the certifying doctor, transportation, the funeral company, Civil Registry fees, and cremation so your friends are not left to raise funds.
Copies of Documents. There must be several copies of critical documents – passport, residence card, living will, death certificate, mortuary certificate, affidavit of Mexican funeral director, transit permit, et altri. The person(s) in charge must be told not to offer an original document to transit people, most bureaucrats, etc. – in most instances these entities receive copies.
Death Certificate (Acta de Defunción)
Who will obtain the Mexican government declaration of death with the appropriate stamps from the Civil Registry and the Ministry of Public Health? This is not only a death certificate but an authorization for burial or cremation. Some Mexican funeral homes have experience assisting with these matters, others not. Will your designees need to do it? Best to find out how to obtain the certificate in the state or province where you live so you can leave instructions. (See Resources section below the article with links to information about death certificates in Mexico).
Register Death with Your Country’s Embassy or Consulate
Who will obtain the proper documents from the U.S. Embassy or Consulate, the Canadian Embassy or Consulate, or other foreign government representatives in Mexico not only to register the death but for remains transported home? Some funeral homes are accustomed to offering this service, others not. The embassy or consulate will prepare a Report of Death from the death certificate. Your family member or representative will use this document along with the Mexican documents if or when remains are transported out of Mexico. At the U.S. Consulate, you are entitled to 20 original copies in English.
Spanish language skills are imperative
Depending on English-speaking Mexicans during this process is not advised as they may not be available when you need them. Have someone at the ready who can negotiate procedures in Spanish. There are a number of facilitators, translators, and attorneys who speaking English or other languages, best to keep their information handy.
What happens if you die in Mexico, have no spouse, no next-of-kin, no legal documents stating your wishes, and no legal representatives?
Your body will probably be transported to a morgue, usually a SEMEFO (Servicio Médico Forense – Medical Forensic Service) building with refrigeration. Not all SEMEFO buildings have refrigeration or space, even if they have refrigeration. See video links at end of the article with tours of SEMEFO in Guadalajara, Mexico City, Sinaloa, and the Yucatan. Your country’s representatives will be called. Each country has different procedures for handling such situations. Your body will probably be autopsied. Often, if no one claims your body, your remains will be placed in a communal grave in Mexico. Each state of Mexico and each rural area has different traditions and preferences.
Few people know where they will die or when. If you spend time in Mexico, or any Latin American country with deeply Catholic traditions, where family ties and support reign (i.e. you will be rescued and your loved ones will know what to do), as well as strict codes and preferences that may not be yours, please choose to prepare yourself.
Preparation hint: register your whereabouts and family contact information with your embassy or consulate The U.S. government, for example, has an excellent system for Americans at https://step.state.gov/. It is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and advises you of security risks in the place where you are living and assists with connecting family and others to you in case of an emergency. Other places to register your emergency information are located in expat communities around the country. The registries are usually announced in local directories, magazines, English-language newspapers, or found by word-of-mouth. Some non-profit expat organizations provide registries as do churches and synagogues with English-speaking congregations.
End-of-Life Planning is critical for expats.
Create peace of mind for yourself, your loved ones, and your neighbors.
Note: Preparing medical directives for healthcare emergencies, and preparing wills, are subjects worthy of their own long articles and are not included above.
Note two: Physicians, funeral directors, cemetery directors, city and province officials (including a district attorney forensics office), one attorney, one notary, and a consulate were consulted with or interviewed in Mexico for this article.
Wendy Jane Carrel, MA, is a Spanish-speaking senior care specialist from California. Over a period of several years, she has traveled state to state in Mexico researching senior care options. She volunteers at the only 24/7 palliative care hospital/hospice in Jalisco which also has a community outreach service. She has investigated, studied, and negotiated health systems, senior care options, end-of-life care, and planning, and, disposition of remains in Mexico. See http://www.WellnessShepherd.com or contact her at wellnessshepherd@
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