By Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Large bouquets of red and white flowers sat atop four separate caskets holding the bodies of an Indian couple and their two children who died while trying to cross into the United States by foot during treacherous winter conditions in southern Manitoba.
A small funeral was held Sunday for the family more than two weeks after their frozen bodies were found just metres from the Canada-U.S. border near Emerson, Man.
Nearly a dozen family members from the U.S. and India travelled to Winnipeg for the two-hour ceremony at a funeral home. The funeral was livestreamed for relatives who were not able to be there. As of Tuesday, there were nearly 20,000 views of the ceremony.
RCMP and diplomatic officials have identified the family as Jagdish Patel, 39; his wife Vaishaliben Patel, 37; their 11-year-old daughter Vihangi; and, their three-year-old son Dharmik.
Officers found the bodies in the snow on Jan. 19. Police believe the four were part of a larger human-smuggling operation. A man from Florida arrested on the U.S. side of the border has been charged with human smuggling.
Bhadresh Bhatt was one of four people from Winnipeg who was asked to join the family on behalf of the larger Indian community in Manitoba.
Bhatt said he didn’t know the family but wanted to provide support.
“Everybody who came from India and the U.S. made all the arrangements so they didn’t need any help from us,” Bhatt said. “We were just there to offer our condolences on behalf of the community.”
Bhatt said the funeral was led by a Hindu priest and the bodies were cremated afterward.
“It was the saddest feeling I have ever had in my life at the funeral of this young family. It’s difficult to describe in words,” he said.
Mourners sat in groups in the pews while the priest guided the ceremony, the livestream showed. Toward the end, they took turns filing past each open casket to pay their respects. A group of women embraced each other as they said their goodbyes.
A toy could be seen peeking out of the casket of the youngest Patel, Dharmik, while a stuffed animal lay with his older sister, Vihangi, whose hair was kept in place with a pink bow.
Family members decided to have a funeral in Canada because it would have been too expensive to return the bodies to India. There was a 15-day mourning and prayer service in the village of Dingucha in the western Indian state of Gujarat where the family was from.
RCMP officers spoke with members of the Patel family while they were in Winnipeg, Cpl. Julie Courchaine said in an email.
Investigators travelled to Toronto last week with hopes of tracking tips and information about the Patels’ time in Canada. Police have said the four arrived in Toronto on Jan. 12 before making their way to southern Manitoba. Investigators are still trying to confirm the family’s movements.
“Every aspect of the family’s journey is being thoroughly investigated,” Courchaine said.
Court documents allege Steve Shand of Deltona, Fla., is part of an organized human-smuggling ring. The documents say there is evidence he may be linked to three other border crossings since December.
They say Shand was driving a van with two Indian nationals just south of the border when he was picked up on Jan. 19.
The papers say five others from India were soon after spotted in the snow walking in the direction of the van. They told border officers that they had been walking for more than 11 hours in the freezing cold and that four others had become separated from the group overnight.
One man in the group also said he had paid a large amount of money to get a fake student visa in Canada and was expecting a ride to a relative’s home in Chicago after he crossed the border, the documents say.
Bhatt said the community is still shocked by what happened.
“It is sad because this has never happened in Manitoba to our community. I have been here for 32 years and have never heard of an incident (where) something like this happens.”
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship