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.
Photo credit: Ingram Publishing
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