These Americans were stranded abroad when the coronavirus pandemic suddenly shut borders. Many are still trying to get home.
WASHINGTON – “Your dad is dead. To much sick.”
That blunt, misspelled message is what Charleen Shakman woke up to on May 12. Her 77-year-old father, Charles Pyles, a lifelong Kentuckian, had been in the Philippines when he grew ill with COVID-19 and succumbed to the virus.
Little did she know, those seven words would be the start of a months-long nightmare that has cost her thousands of dollars, countless tears, and hours of frustrated calls and emails to the U.S. embassy and members of Congress seeking help with a seemingly simple task: bringing her father’s remains back to the United States.
But nothing is simple in a global pandemic that has sickened millions of people, slowed global travel, and slashed U.S. embassy services.
“I am desperate and heartbroken,” Shakman said in an interview Monday, crying as she talked about trying to fulfill her father’s final wishes.
The State Department has helped bring home thousands of American travelers who became stranded amid the global shutdown when the pandemic began.
The agency does not keep statistics on how many Americans have died of COVID-19 abroad. But hundreds of U.S. citizens die annually of various causes – from car accidents to drownings to homicide, an agency database shows.
Normally when Americans die abroad, embassy officials help can with a gamut of tasks – from notifying next-of-kin to repatriating remains.
But Shakman said that’s not what has happened with her father. Shakman has been leading the family’s effort to get Pyles’ remains home, although her mother, Doris Pyles, who lives in Kentucky and was not traveling with her husband, has also been helping.
After the initial shock of her husband’s death, Doris Pyles said she and her daughter thought about their next steps. “We’ll send money and we’ll talk to the embassy and everything will be okay,” she thought. “Well, nothing was okay. Absolutely nothing.”
They feel scammed by the Philippine funeral home that took $4,000 of her family’s money – a fee that included “Repatriation of Urn/Ashes to Kentucky USA,” according to the contract she shared with USA TODAY. And they feel abandoned by the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Manila, who she has beseeched for assistance.
“PLEASE HELP ME BRING MY DADDY HOME!!!!” Shakman wrote in one email. “He is currently sitting in a jar on the shelf of a funeral home that I have never seen nor visited.”
Charles Pyles (far right) with his wife (center), daughter (far left) and grandkids at a Christmas celebration. (Photo: Courtesy of Charleen Shakman)
The U.S. Embassy in Manila referred questions to the State Department in Washington.
A State Department official did not address Shakman’s specific case. But this official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under the agency’s policy, said that due to the pandemic, “embassies may face delays due to local conditions, availability of necessary foreign government officials, and COVID-19 related logistical challenges.”
In the case of the Pyles family, the delay has now lasted 106 days – and counting.
“I want his ashes. I want him back here in the United States. And I know that’s what he wants,” Doris Pyles, 75, said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “He didn’t want to stay in the Philippines in a box somewhere on a shelf.”
When the pandemic first emerged, Shakman asked her dad to come back to the United States. But he had become an avid traveler after retiring from his job as a civil servant at Fort Knox. He loved the Philippines, making it his home-away-from-home with a circle of friends in the ex-pat community.
In early May, some of his friends grew concerned that they had not seen Pyles out and about. They went to his apartment and discovered he was seriously ill. Doris Pyles said her husband refused to go to the local hospital and died soon after that visit.
Grief stricken, the family began make the necessary arrangements.
“He made it very clear to all of the people he loved that what he wanted was to be cremated in the Philippines, have his ashes shipped home to my mother and have us gather at his parents’ grave” to scatter his ashes, said Shakman, a U.S. Army veteran who now works for Johnson Controls in Missouri.
Until that happens, she said, “we’re all kind of in limbo and unsettled.”
It’s not clear exactly what the hold-up is. A representative of the funeral home in the Philippines suggested, via email, that they had been unable to find an airline that would carry Pyles’ human remains. The funeral home shared copies of text messages and emails with Shakman, in which they deny scamming the family and say they are working with “heart and sincerity” to help return their father.
“Not all airlines is accepting cargo, not just a cargo, a CREMATED HUMAN REMAIN,” one message reads in part.
When Shakman asked the embassy for help, she was told: “Here’s the forms you need … good luck,” she said.
So Shakman contacted her U.S. senators in Missouri, where she now lives, and her mother wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Shakman said the lawmakers sent her and her mother form responses referring her back to the embassy.
After USA TODAY made inquiries with McConnell and Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley’s offices, staff from both offices contacted her and vowed to help.
And on Wednesday, Shakman received a text message from one of her father’s best friends in the Philippines, who has also spent months trying to help them. He told her he’d gotten an appointment with the U.S. embassy for a sign-off of her father’s mortuary certificate. And he’d found a flight that would take her father’s urn home next week, barring cancellations.
Doris Pyles said she is ready to pick her husband’s ashes up at a moment’s notice.
“All they have to do is call and say there’s a package for Doris Pyles,” she said. “I just want him to be home.”
More: ‘I can’t help but feel we are abandoned’: Stranded Americans seek US help amid global lockdown
More: ‘Window is closing fast.’ State Dept scrambles to bring 13,000 stranded Americans home amid coronavirus
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2020/08/27/covid-family-fights-get-fathers-remains-after-he-died-overseas/5633546002/