Family Sues After Body Falls Out of Casket

November 30, 2009
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imageRobert Gowdy may have died May 2, 2008, but memory of his burial lives on.

While the Mesa native’s passing from congestive heart failure surely came as a shock to his family, it’s his graveside burial at a city cemetery that has sparked a lawsuit against the city, Preston Funeral Home and two other parties in Maricopa County Superior Court.

The lawsuit – initially filed in April by 24 relatives and later combined with a separate suit brought by his widow Roxanne and their three children – involves the 50-year-old’s burial at a city cemetery.

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There, his casket broke apart after falling into the grave at an angle.

Roxanne Gowdy declined to comment for this story and referred all questions to her attorney, Keith Nelson. Requests for comment left for Nelson and the other relatives’ attorney, Bertrand Russell, also were not returned.

The lawsuit states that day after Robert’s death, Roxanne Gowdy began funeral arrangements with Preston Funeral home. While there, she contracted with the funeral home to purchase a “Renaissance” solid-wood casket, the lawsuit states.

However, the casket wasn’t available so the funeral home’s director, Rev. James Preston, offered to “upgrade” to a better “Madison” casket free of charge. Arrangements were then made for Robert Gowdy to be buried within a city cemetery.

Friends and family gathered at the plot May 10, 2008.

City employees Enido Ayala and Gonzalo Meza, both named defendants in the lawsuit, were standing by waiting to lower the casket.

As the funeral service ended, Robert Gowdy’s wife, and their children Robert Jr., Robyn and Russell Gowdy stood along the gravesite to pay their final respects as the casket was lowered, the lawsuit states.

Ayala and Meza began slowly depositing the casket into the ground, when the lowering device near the head of the casket broke.

“The broken strap caused the casket to slide head-first at an angle into the grave, hit the side of the vault, and come to rest in the grave at approximately a 45-degree angle,” the lawsuit states. “The impact of the casket into the side of the vault caused the casket lid to disconnect and exposed Robert Sr.’s body to the entire assembly.”

As the deceased man’s family and friends looked on in horror, Ayala and Meza reportedly fled on foot, the lawsuit states.

City Attorney James Fritz, who is representing the city, denied the claim in court documents, but said Tuesday that the casket itself caused the incident.

“Our contention is that we didn’t do anything wrong,” Fritz said. “The edge of casket was actually very sharp and cut the strap (lowering the casket). There are other incidents around the Valley similar to this one.”

While family and friends looked on, two members of the funeral assembly climbed into the grave to remove the casket.

As they began to lift the damaged box from the grave, the bottom separated from the sides “causing Robert Sr.’s body to slide off the casket and into the bottom of the grave. Robert Sr.’s body was lifted, drug out of the grave, and placed on the ground.”

The body was then lifted by its arms and legs, and carried into the hearse. However, in court documents, the funeral home denied Robert Gowdy’s body slid from the casket.

Back at the gravesite, the family found that the “Madison” casket was made of particle board held by staples, the suit said.

Six days later, family and friends again gathered at the gravesite for a second burial. Ahead of the service, the widow asked to view Robert Gowdy’s body one last time, and was again “mortified.”

“Preston Funeral Home dressed Robert Sr. in a black pinstripe suit (Robert Sr. hated pinstripes) and in various other clothing that did not match, including a blue shirt and brown tie,” because his original burial clothes were soiled, the lawsuit states.

Additionally, a friendship bracelet Robyn had given to her deceased father was missing, the lawsuit states.

Also named in the suit are city employees Rick Fifield and Darrell Forrest; the Aurora Casket Company; and the Frigid Fluid Company, which made the casket-lowering device.

Source: AZ Central

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