Funeral Industry News

Dispute Unearths Grave Mistake as Man’s Casket Yields A Woman

February 17, 2010

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Dispute Unearths Grave Mistake as Man’s Casket Yields A Woman

imageAs a cold wind blew across Forest Hill Cemetery on Whitten Road on Tuesday morning, Dr. Lisa Funte peered into a newly unearthed brown steel casket that just 30 minutes earlier had been 6 feet beneath a headstone marked “John G. Hughes.”

Funte, an assistant medical examiner, then turned toward a small group of onlookers and solemnly announced: “It’s a female.”

Her finding supports the contention of a former employee of High Point Funeral Chapel who said in an affidavit to the Tennessee Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers that the chapel, in effect, tried to bury its mistake last June.

Hughes was mistakenly cremated instead of buried, and the body of Billie Sue Smith then was stripped of all identification and buried in Hughes’ plot instead of being cremated, said Oliver Ewing, a former embalmer at High Point.

“I was the one who transported the body to the cemetery,” declared Ewing, who said he was acting at that time on orders of his bosses at High Point. “The family of Billie Sue Smith has the ashes of John Hughes, and Billie Sue Smith is buried as John Hughes.”

Shane McElveen, owner of High Point, disputed Ewing’s allegations in an affidavit. McElveen said he checked the toe tag on the body to be buried and that it said “John Hughes.” He said there was no cover-up.

McElveen did not return a telephone call Tuesday, and the chapel’s attorney, Andrew Owens, said he was not authorized to comment.

The matter came to light after Ewing notified the Tennessee funeral directors board, which in turn contacted the Smith family and suggested getting an attorney and a court order to disinter the body.

“It’s just outrageous,” said attorney Jeff Rosenblum, who represents the Smith family. “You know the adage, ‘May she rest in peace’? Well, there’s no peace here. To know you have ashes of the cremains of a loved one that may not be their ashes? To visit the grave of a loved one and the loved one may not be in that grave? There’s no peace.”

He noted that Forest Hill, which has had its share of legal and financial issues in recent years, has no blame in this case and has cooperated fully with the unusual procedure.

Billie Sue Smith, 78, who had three children, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, died of natural causes last June. She was a registered nurse and worked for 25 years at Methodist before retiring.

John G. Hughes, 64, died at a nursing home around the same time and left no immediate family.

The body removed from the grave Tuesday was taken to the Regional Forensic Center, where doctors hope a positive identification can be made through dental records or possibly through the serial number on Mrs. Smith’s pacemaker, if present.

“Mama didn’t deserve this,” said her daughter, Catherine McClamrock, who wept when the body in the grave was determined to be female. “She was such a sweet lady. She didn’t deserve this.”

On her attorney’s advice, she brought along the urn with ashes that for the past eight months she thought were those of her mother.

She left them with cemetery officials for safekeeping.