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Your Loved One’s Body May Not Be Where You Think It Is: Cemetery Screw-Ups

Your Loved One’s Body May Not Be Where You Think It Is: Cemetery Screw-Ups

A few years ago we had to euthanize our beloved cat Howard. The animal hospital asked what to do with his remains, and we asked them to return his ashes to us. She nodded and wrote something down on a form.

Then came the phone call from the vet: oops, so sorry, but we dumped Howard’s ashes in a common grave.

It felt almost like losing him all over again. Why did it matter so much? It was a bag of ashes, not my cat. But just writing this is making me tear up. I wanted whatever I could have of Howard, and I didn’t want him (knowing full well that it’s not really him) spending eternity in a big pile of ashes in a pit somewhere.

Howard was my cat. Imagine how you’d feel if it happened to your mother.

Or your grandfather. We buried my mom’s father almost two weeks ago. When we got to the cemetery the hole was dug, the dirt was piled alongside, and it was hard to tell where we were in the family plot. But a few days later it was clear: they put my Papa in the wrong place. He would not be next to the people he had chosen to spend forever with. This last thing that his family could do for him was to treat his remains as he had asked, but the cemetery took that away from us.

This is not just a streak of bad luck for me. Some Googling showed that it happens all the time. Last fall an Alabama man, Paul Phillips, was buried in the wrong plot. The cemetery decided to move the body because it was in a plot that belonged to another family. Phillips’s son Chris opposed the move, but eventually gave in. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” Chris Phillips said. “The stuff that I went through with him dying and everything and having to bury him and then this about having to dig him up and move him again. All the pain I had from losing my dad, it’s happening all over again.” He decided he couldn’t face a second ceremony, so the second burial was not accompanied by a funeral service.

In 2011 a North Carolina woman was buried a row above and to the right of her husband’s plot. Her family had purchased two adjacent plots over 30 years ago so Sarah Mobley would lie next to her husband, but somehow it didn’t happen. Someone else was already buried in her plot.

Even the famed National Cemetery system has buried 15 veterans in the wrong plots and has mismarked hundreds of other graves. It blamed maps that were not updated and headstones sinking below the ground over time.

Last summer in Detroit, a woman was buried in the wrong plot. Like my grandfather, the woman, Lolita Fortuyne, was buried next to what should have been her plot. The cemetery manager refused to answer reporters’ questions and forced them out of the facility. She told the family that the cemetery was busy that day and workers did not check the tags that specify where to put each coffin.

Fortuyne’s daughter said, “I just can’t understand how do you make a mistake and have a funeral twice for your mother? How?”

That is just it. You can’t have a funeral twice — not really. It’s just not the same. Many people, especially out-of-towners, wouldn’t be there the second time. And while my Papa left college to volunteer to fight for the U.S.A. in World War II, I don’t think he would get the full military honors a second time.

Which means that cemeteries leave the bereaved with no decent recourse. Short of digging up the coffin and reburying it in the right place, the wrong cannot be made right. Some people do choose a reburial. But besides the problems inherent in a second funeral, unearthing and reburying a body feels invasive and morbid. In a way it undermines the meaning and solemnity of the first burial.

It can’t be that complicated to dig a hole in the right place. Cemeteries have maps, they have contracts showing which family owns which plots, they have instructions from the bereaved. It seems like they would have to work at it to make this serious a mistake, yet it keeps happening.

If you lose a loved one, please be as explicit as you can with the cemetery and verify at the funeral that the coffin is lowered into the right place. No one else cares as much as you do.

 

Related Stories:

Faithful Italian Cat Brings Gifts to Owner’s Grave

New Burial Method Reduces Impact on Environment

No Cemetery Rights for Gays in Italian Region

 

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Photo credit: Ingram Publishing

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102 comments

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5:21AM PDT on Jun 2, 2013

yes i knew about this /: thank you for the article

10:09PM PDT on May 9, 2013

My mother passed away two weeks ago and, when they dug her grave, they found someone already buried there. We got this news less than 24 hours from the funeral and at the funeral home during our last visitation. They have no clue who it is, they have no records. They had to bury my mother in a different spot, and now they will have to move my father and the monument. It's absolutely ridiculous, disrespectful and beyond comprehension. It's 2013 - there are ways to check what's underground. We feel robbed of our last visit and there won't be any closure until my father is moves. Like the man in the article said, I wouldn't wish this on anybody.

6:52PM PDT on Apr 22, 2013

How on earth does this happen?? That's appalling!

9:58AM PDT on Apr 15, 2013

This makes me trust cemeteries and funeral homes even less. I'm already having enough trouble finding out whether or not I can have a "green" burial in our town cemetery. Cremation is against my religion, and I'm against embalming, a concrete vault, and a metal casket because I want to allow my body to return to the Goddess the way She meant it to, not pollute the earth with toxic chemicals or keep my body around forever with a casket and vault. All I want is a simple wood coffin and straight earth burial, but every time I email a cemetery or funeral home in our area asking about their policy regarding such, I never get a response back. What's a Wiccan who wants a proper earth burial to do?

My parents' pets were buried in their backyard in that manner, and we did the same with our cat-an earth burial with a flower garden planted on top-he always did love to watch the birds from our windows, so we planted bird-friendly flowers and shrubs in his garden for his spirit's amusement (at least until it gets reborn into another one of his nine lives, anyway). Why is human burial so much more complicated?

4:19AM PDT on Apr 15, 2013

Not good

9:21AM PDT on Apr 14, 2013

How terrible. Cemeteries need to do a better job of preventing unfortunate mistakes like these and be held accountable. Thanks Piper.

8:24AM PDT on Apr 14, 2013

thank you

8:21AM PDT on Apr 14, 2013

thank you

8:21AM PDT on Apr 14, 2013

thank you

7:48PM PDT on Apr 13, 2013

I agree that it is ridiculous to be unable to figure out where to bury a body properly- seriously, it is too hard to read the name on the casket? Of course, surgeons operate on the wrong body parts all the time- and that is with a living person! So I guess it would be too much to ask to do the right thing when the person is deceased.

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