Funeral homes of horror

A sobbing Raúl Muñoz lurched toward a varnished wood coffin at the foot of a small church in Camagüey, Cuba. It was 2 o'clock the morning of November 18, 2006, a little more than a month since Muñoz's son, Yetsiyel, committed suicide by jumping from the 14th floor of a Hialeah building. The day had arrived for the dead young man's viewing. Surrounded by relatives and friends, Yetsiyel's father opened the casket and exhaled a loud gasp.

Muñoz's eyes widened in horror. In the casket was the corpse of a Haitian man who clearly wasn't his son.

The panicked father immediately dialed his wife, Nancy, who was still in Miami. "They sent us the wrong body!" he blurted. A terrified Nancy dialed the phone number for Funeraria Latina Nacional at 151 NW 37th Ave., near the Flagler Dog Track, where she and her husband had made final arrangements for Yetsiyel. The owner, Rafaiy Alkhalifa (pronounced Raf-eye Al-cuh-leef-uh), profusely apologized for the mixup.

He assured her that he had Yetsiyel's body and would deliver it to Camagüey November 20 at no extra charge. Nancy left to join her husband in Cuba, instructing two family members to identify the body before allowing Alkhalifa to ship it. He never came through with the missing corpse. On November 21, in the Brickell Avenue office of his lawyer, the funeral home owner informed Yetsiyel's relatives that the young man's body "had been mistakenly cremated," according to a 2008 lawsuit filed by the Muñoz family against Alkhalifa.

When the shocked family members demanded the ashes, Alkhalifa dropped another bomb. He had given the remains to the family of Marcos Mustelier, the dead Haitian he had mistakenly shipped to Cuba. Mustelier's mother, under the belief she had received her son's ashes, scattered Yetsiyel's dust at sea. Alkhalifa allegedly begged Muñoz's kin "not to notify the media because he would lose his license and business."

The Muñoz case plus two other pending lawsuits and more than a decade's worth of administrative and criminal investigative material against Alkhalifa reveal him to be one unsavory businessman who desecrates the funeral home profession.

In addition to mistakenly cremating Yetsiyel and shipping the wrong body, Alkhalifa has been accused of losing the ashes of a cremated corpse, holding another body hostage, losing track of cadavers, misidentifying remains, running unsanitary funeral homes without proper licenses, and pilfering a half-million dollars from a funeral trust fund controlled by the State of Florida.

"Rafaiy is the scumbag of the industry," says Verl Shaw, a crematory owner who used to do business with Alkhalifa. "Rafaiy does things half-assed. He doesn't seem to care about the families or the trade. He just takes care of Rafaiy. He's treated pretty much throughout the industry as a pariah because every time he does business with somebody, he burns 'em."

(Full disclosure: Most of the documents used in this story were obtained by co-author Robert Dunlap, who worked as a paralegal for the law firm of Don Russo, an attorney representing the family of Estelle Vega, a deceased woman whose ashes Alkhalifa allegedly released to a stranger in 2005.)

A single rosebud pokes out of the breast pocket of Rafaiy Alkhalifa's light-gray two-piece suit. With its slightly wilted petals, the deep-red flower is a somber reminder of his line of work. This past July 16, shortly before 5 p.m., the tall man with fine gray hair and dark-cocoa skin strolls the halls of Funeraria Latina Nacional, where 17 years ago he got into the business of burying and cremating the dead. Alkhalifa's black loafers click on the terrazzo floor leading into the main chapel, bathed in a dim orange light. He walks toward the corpse of an elderly Hispanic woman resting inside a sparkly pearl-white coffin.

"This is one of the most expensive caskets you can buy," Alkhalifa proclaims. "Other funeral homes will charge their customers $3,000 for a casket like this. I sell it for $300." He walks outside and points to a sign on his building. It reads, "Cremations Express: $395."

With the rabid tenacity of a used-car salesman willing to cater to or, some critics might say, bamboozle low-income customers, Alkhalifa has cornered the market on cheap death rituals in Miami-Dade County, where burials at other funeral homes run $8,000 to $30,000. During an hourlong interview, Alkhalifa casts himself as the outsider in an industry dominated by Cuban-Americans who despise him because he keeps prices low. To hear him tell it, Alkhalifa is an honest businessman who puts too much faith and trust in employees who burn him.

He insists none of the lawsuits, the administrative complaints, or even a criminal investigation into his business practices has anything to do with him. "A lot of people are not happy with the way I do business," Alkhalifa says. "Because of me, no one can raise their prices."