A team of university anthropologists and their students recently discovered mass graves containing the corpses of what they believe are migrants who died while illegally crossing the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The remains were found in a cemetery in South Texas by researchers and students during the past two weeks. The team has been working for multiple years on a volunteer basis to identify those who have succumbed to exposure while attempting to cross the border without being discovered by Border Control. The remote areas of Texas can reach temperatures higher than 100 degrees during the summer months and offers scarce water and shade. The county of Brooks alone reported hundreds of migrant deaths within the past several years.
According to the anthropologists, they found the graves in the area of the Sacred Heart Burial Park owned by Brooks County in Falfurrias, Texas. The bodies were discovered encased in shopping bags, trash bags and body bags. Some of the remains were buried without any sort of container. According to the Corpus Christi Caller Times, some of the bodies discovered had been buried beneath small, temporary signs with the name of a local funeral home, Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams, on them.
Lori Baker, anthropologist from Baylor University, reports that one grave contained bones from three separate bodies placed inside the same body bag. Another revealed at least five people, some in plastic bags and others encased in body bags, piled on top of each other. Red plastic biohazard bags containing skulls were discovered between coffins. Some bones had been placed inside of a garbage bag before being put into a gift bag bearing the word “Dignity,”the logo of the funeral home’s parent company, Howard Williams, which is owned by Service Corporation International. Baker also reported that although some of the bodies were skeletons when found, others were in various states of decay.
Last year, the team uncovered the remains of 110 people from the cemetery in hopes of identifying those buried within its grounds. Although 52 graves were exhumed this year, more than 52 people were found. According to Baker, further study will need to be done in order to identify the bodies as well as to determine the number of bodies actually buried within the 52 spaces, as multiple bodies were found commingled. In addition, not all of the containers were opened upon exhumation.
County officials from both Brooks and Jim Hogg counties stated that they hired the funeral home to process bodies discovered by sheriff’s officials near a far-removed U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in South Texas. It is believed that the Brooks County funeral home has been processing the bodies since 2005. According to Brooks County Judge Raul Ramirez, the county has been following this procedure for the past 16 years ,if not longer. Chief sheriff’s deputy in neighboring Jim Hogg County, Lorenzo Benavides, reports that they have paid the funeral home to process bodies from their county for at least 22 of the past years, and that the Jim Hogg County bodies were buried in Brooks County. Each body processed by the funeral home costs Brooks county $450.00, according to Benny Martinez, Brooks County chief deputy.
Texas law regarding the burial of human remains varies according to burial procedure and cemetery type, but due to being regulated by a number of different agencies and laws, it is difficult to determine who is responsible for following the regulations. Although the Health and Safety Code of Texas mandates the recording of names, locations and dates in every burial performed, there is no direct assignment of the responsibility, according to the staff attorney at the Texas Funeral Service Commission, Kyle Smith. Smith says that usually the cemetery owner is the one to record and map graves. Should an error occur in which a body is buried in the wrong spot or is buried with another body, the funeral home itself will usually attempt to rectify the situation, but because the family of the deceased is usually the one to point out such errors, in cases where there is no family to complain, the errors are not corrected.
Baker reports that before exhuming the bodies, she asked the funeral home for their records and was told that none existed. The Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams website claims a multi-decade history of assisting Hispanic families by offering “dignity and respect” throughout the ordeal of losing a loved one.
Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams declined comment and referred all questions to parent company Service Corporation International in Houston. The research team intends to return to the cemetery next summer in order to unearth more remains for identification.
By Jennifer Pfalz
Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams