Nonprofit aims to ensure everyone is ‘buried with love, respect and dignity’

The family of Karen Carrillo surrounds an urn carrying her ashes: from right, her daughter Veronica Carrillo, her 11-year-old granddaughter Nevaeh Montoya, her husband, Larry Jaramillo, and her son-in-law Daniel Allen-Oberstein. The family members were unprepared for Karen Carillo’s death, but with the help of the nonprofit Sangre de Cristo Funeral Fund, they were able to hold a funeral service, and they plan to bury her ashes in the fall at Rosario Cemetary. Natalie Guillén/The New Mexican

Veronica Carrillo was a few days away from getting married when her mother died in April.

Carrillo, an only child who was a new college graduate with student loans, said she was unprepared financially. “When my mom, Karen Carrillo, passed away, it was devastating,” she said. Suddenly she had to come up with money for a casket, funeral services, a reception hall and food for guests. “We thought, ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to pay?’ ” said Carrillo, 28, of Pojoaque.

In stepped Larry Vigil, El Coro de JesuCristo, a mariachi choral group, and the nonprofit they formed in 2008, the Sangre de Cristo Funeral Fund.

The nonprofit is still small. But in its seven years, it has spent more than $75,000 and has helped some 200 low-income families offset the costs of simple funeral services. As evidence of the firm footing the group is developing, it attracted the famous band Los Lobos to help in its fundraising efforts. The band played a benefit concert Friday at the Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino in Pojoaque.

Vigil, who manages the nonprofit funeral fund, said many people lack life insurance to cover the costs of their own funeral, and loved ones are often unprepared. The goal of the Sangre de Cristo Funeral Fund, he said, is to make sure everyone receives a proper service.

“I don’t care if you are a rapist, a murderer, a newborn baby or a 100-year-old person. This is your last journey to a new life,” said Vigil, a retired sewing machine repairman. “Everybody deserves to be buried with love, respect and dignity.”

Santa Fe County, like other counties in the state, will help families pay for cremations, but the aid it provides won’t cover the cost of an urn or a funeral service.

Veronica Carrillo said she didn’t even know about the county program when her mother died.

But the Sangre de Cristo Funeral Fund, she said, made a huge difference. The $700 the fund provided helped cover the costs of a church, a priest, a reception hall and an urn for her mother’s ashes. She said the Rivera Family Funeral Home also helped by reducing the cost of her mother’s cremation and providing a room for a family viewing.

Vigil said families who work with the funeral fund are required to come up with $300 for a funeral service, and the fund pays the balance. The fund often works with mortuaries and churches that offer discounted prices, he said, and El Coro provides the music for free.

Carrillo said she learned about Vigil’s group from a secretary at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis de Assisi.

Rivera Family Funeral Home owner Tim Rivera said providing discounted funerals for low-income families is a financial sacrifice for his company, “but New Mexico is a poor state.”

Sitting with Vigil in an office at the funeral home, Rivera said the funeral fund is “a mission we both believe in.”

Decades ago, Rivera said, friends and family attending a funeral all pitched in to help cover the costs of a funeral. “Those customs are not as common anymore,” he said. The funeral fund “is a different method of doing that.”

The fund primarily helps families in Santa Fe but has expanded to help others in Española, Taos, Pecos and Las Vegas, N.M., Vigil said.

The idea for the fund began one day in 2008 when Vigil was singing with El Coro de JesuCristo during a funeral service in Santa Fe. A woman carried her uncle’s ashes into the church in a decorated shoebox, Vigil said. It was spray-painted, decorated with little shells and glitter, and had a cross glued on top.

“It was pretty, but still — it was a shoebox,” Vigil said. “I cried. And I’m a grown man.”

The woman told him later that the family was too broke to afford an urn or a full funeral service.

The 38 men and women in the choir decided they had to do something to help families like this one, so they held a giant yard sale at the Santa María de la Paz Catholic Community and made about $4,000, Vigil said. They also began to hold fundraiser concerts. Their first was at the cathedral in 2009. The concert featured a children’s mariachi group, three local choirs and a professional mariachi group.

Over the years, donated concert spaces for the group’s fundraisers have been offered at San Felipe Casino Hollywood, the Santa Fe Community Convention Center and, for the last two years, Buffalo Thunder. Al Hurricane, Tobias Rene and other known Latino bands have played to raise money for the funeral fund.

“A lot of things have happened in the seven years we’ve been doing this,” Vigil said. “We have a lot of wonderful sponsors.”

He said the funeral homes check to ensure that a family working with the group doesn’t have an insurance policy or a higher income than they claim. “I got burned a couple of times,” Vigil said. “I found out the family could afford the funeral.”

The Rivera Family Funeral Home has worked the closest with the funeral fund and co-sponsored Friday’s Los Lobos concert at Buffalo Thunder.

Rick Berardinelli of Berardinelli Family Funeral Services in Santa Fe said he has recommended a few families to the funeral fund, but he wasn’t sure if they received the help. “I’ve never received a check from the group,” Berardinelli said.

Vigil said that wasn’t true.

DeVargas Funeral Home in Española did not respond to calls for comment on the fund.

Kyra Ochoa, manager of the Santa Fe County Healthcare Assistance Program, an indigent fund that also helps cover cremation costs, said she didn’t know about the Sangre de Cristo Funeral Fund, although one of her staff members has referred some clients to the group.

Ochoa confirmed the county pays up to $600 for cremation services for a low-income person, which won’t cover a service or urn. The remains are given to the family in a cardboard box, she said.

For a single person, the annual gross salary limit to qualify for the county aid is $34,950. The county averages about 35 people a year who ask for help, and so far it hasn’t had to turn anyone away, Ochoa said. She thinks more people might qualify but may not know about the program.

Carrillo, who said her mom was single and disabled, was grateful for the help she received from the Sangre de Cristo Funeral Fund. “When people pass away, you don’t expect it,” she said. “You want something nice for them.”

She still has the urn with her mom’s ashes. She plans to bury them in Rosario Cemetery.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.

Los Lobos on stage tonight at Buffalo Thunder.

Posted by The Santa Fe New Mexican on Friday, August 14, 2015
Los Lobos performs in support of the Sangre de Cristo Funeral Fund

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