Not even our dead are safe from the political games being played on the stage of a homeland opening up to profits.
Case in point: the half-page ad, in the Miami Herald’s otherwise respectful obituary page, illustrated with a map of Cuba and titled in bold, “An Open Letter from National Funeral Homes.”
In oddly phrased English and combative tones worthy of Cold War-era Granma, the funeral home touts a 20-year-history of “re-uniting Cuban families in Cuba with deceased ones who died in the United States while other Hispanic funeral homes worried about the politics.”
This service, National claims, has been provided despite “opposition, from detractors and running against the wind.” Apologies should go to rocker Bob Seger for the strange dragging of the classic phrase in his song into the offensive mess this ad becomes, line after line.
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“It’s free gratis — for nothing,” continues the ad, as if funeral homes actually delivered no-cost services.
National has “friends” in Cuba who can bury your deceased loved ones in family pantheons, the ad promises. These friends also can “retile, repair and repaint your family’s burial heritage” — you know, exiles, reclaim that other piece of property you also left behind in the cemetery! Or, if you prefer, they also deliver cremated remains door to door.
“Family like soldiers are [sic] not left behind, with a desire to be repatriated to the fatherland, even in death, even in death.”
Being buried in Cuba is legal, but if you’ve buried loved ones who mourned their entire lives the loss of a homeland — and died with plenty of dignity in exile — you’re nauseated enough by now.
But the picture gets more offensive.
The funeral home at 151 NW 37th Ave. implicitly attacks all of us thoughtless Cuban Americans for burying our dead here.
In Cuba, the ad says, “you are buried next to family and friends, not, next to perfect strangers in Miami cemeteries, after paying thousands for a simple water logged hole in the ground.”
The person who wrote the ad identified himself to me as Rafael Al-Khalifa, although a staff member identified him as Rafael Mohabir.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement records list him as using the aliases Sheik Rafayi Al-Khalifa and Hilbert Mohabir.
The funeral home is listed under the state’s fictitious names register by Hilbert Mohabir, as are all the funeral home land lines and the cellphone from which he and staff called me.
Whatever his name really is, he uses Hispanic staff to lure customers and continues operating, despite complaints against him for unsavory business practices. Records show the state’s Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services has in the past denied him a license to operate.
But Al-Khalifa/Mohabir tells me that he’s actually a Good Samaritan who has “buried all the balseros that have landed here.”
“The Cuban community knows me,” he adds. “I have never made a profit.”
I tell him the complaints against him on various listing and consumer review services on the Internet say different: that he has sold services to elderly people who later find out what they purchased doesn’t exist; that no service is free — on the contrary, people complain that they end up with undisclosed charges as the process of body removal, viewing, shipping or burying moves along.
He tells me he does 10 “ship outs” a week to Cuba, Nicaragua and Guatemala for free. He rails against Catholic cemeteries that he says are burying people in “water-logged graves.” (As if Cuba, in the news constantly after torrential rains, was immune from flooding.)
I tell him that a spokeswoman for State Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater says that there’s no license registered for National Funeral Homes to operate.
“That concerns us and we are going to open an investigation to look into it,” spokeswoman Ashley Carr told me, adding that funeral homes around the state routinely deal with embassies, consulates and airlines to send home nationals from other countries who die here. The service doesn’t normally require anyone to have “friends” in the countries receiving the bodies.
When I asked Mohabir for comment on his troubles with the state, he screamed: “Go to hell! You go to hell! You’re a bitch! Get the f--- off my line!” And he hung up.
The National Funeral Homes ad has been running frequently since President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raúl Castro entered into negotiations to establish full diplomatic relations and expand trade and travel.
“We are getting a lot of calls, all of them positive responses to the ad, and you’re the only negative one,” a woman who identifies herself as Diana Sosa, the manager, tells me when I first call the phone number on the ad.
I ask for Maria Fernandez, who told the state in a 2011 appeals hearing — after Hilbert Mohabir was denied a license — that she was owner and operator of the funeral home (which has operated under as many different names as Mohabir), but Sosa tells me she’s not in.
Consumers be warned.
No real agreement has been reached between the U.S. and Cuba, but those who trade and profit from the emotions of the Cuban people are already stepping up their game.
One’s final resting place is a personal choice, but why would our dead be better buried anywhere else than here, among us?
This is where these ordinary souls — heart-broken and nostalgic for the homeland they lost, a generation that proudly raised families in anonymity and contributed with their hard work to make Miami what it is today — belong.
This is where they celebrated their children’s graduations and weddings, where quinceañeras glowed and baseball was played, where mortgages and tombs were proudly paid off as grandchildren and great-grandchildren grew up, too.
This is where, in the company of those who loved them, and whom they loved most, they now lie in rest. And it’s where we, thanks to their sacrifices, wake up every day as free people.