After Funeral and Cremation, a Shock: The Woman in the Coffin Wasn’t Mom

Mar 22, 2016 · 171 comments
Allyoop (Florida)
First of all, hearwrenching experience for the family, and secondly, how refreshing for the business to take ownership of a screw up that opens then up to criticism and possible liability.
AmateurHistorian (NYC)
Mistake happens. Less at the funeral home and more at the hospital. If all of us are as trained as doctors, we would have spot those mistakes as easily as this family spotted their mother is not their mother.

I am speaking from personal experience, hospital change patient records and doctors cover each others' mistakes. You cannot win as medicine at that level are impossible for untrained layman to comprehend and you have to take their word for it. Unless you have an expert witness like those in court, you cannot say if the doctor made the right call at the right time.

Lawyers are useless unless the mistake is obvious, meaning even you know that's not how it is done, and only then if there are enough money to be made by the lawyer.

By the time it gets to the funeral home, all the mistakes already happened. Making sure the person there is the correct person is the only thing you can do.
susie (New York)
I would like to thank PRN for his gracious and informative responses to a number of the comments. I am sorry for the loss of your Mother and also sorry that some comments may not be tactful.
PRN (New Jersey)
Thanks, some comments are a bit shocking.
Lucille Hollander (Texas)
It seems to me that there are lots of problems within the industry. My Catholic father was buried at a cemetery in New Jersey that was and is advertised as exclusively for Jewish people.
My heart goes out to the McDonalds.
Anne Russell (Wrightsville Beach NC)
In the worst of times, a sense of humor helps a great deal. This scenario can become an entertaining movie or play. When my late-60s brother killed himself 5 years ago (by gun in mouth), I was overwhelmed by sadness and sense of loss, but was told that in his last couple of years he ate all his meals at McDonald's, where everyone knew his name. I buried his ashes in a McDonald's box, so he could be at McDonald's for eternity. How awful! you may say. But with his quirky sense of humor, Jim would find this amusing.
Christopher (Mexico)
What a bizarre event, and what strange coverage by the NYT. If the Times is going into such detail on such an unfortunate event as this, then it at least ought to indicate what happened to the other family, that of the woman who was cremated instead of Ms. McDonald.

My condolences to the McDonald family. And to the other, unnamed family.
PRN (New Jersey)
Hi, Mike Wilson has been searching for that family as well butility the funeral home will not release any information.
Anne-Marie Hislop (Chicago)
How awful - especially for the other family whose loved one was cremated without their having a chance to see her and decide for themselves what they wanted done! They can, of course, still hold a memorial service, but they missed an opportunity which is very important to many folks.
Ruth (<br/>)
Perhaps, seeing with the eyes of love, these family members saw the essence of this woman... perhaps these were both loving and beloved women.
I hope there is some solace in this for both families: their loved ones were in the presence of love, a love which knows no bounds.
Brian E Smith (Sydney Australia)
Why bother embalming when they are cremating? Seems like a waste of time effort and money to me!
Nancy (NYC)
The law here requires it.
NY state law doesn't require embalming. Funeral homes are supposed to ask the family if they want it, and the funeral home may require it under some circumstances--for example, for open-casket viewings.
Thomas K (Minnesota)
New York state law does not require embalming. Funeral homes usually require embalming if there is to be an open casket viewing. But that's the funeral home's "business" decision. It's not state law.
Brenda (St. Louis, Mo)
Who was the orher lady and what about her poor family?
David (Brooklyn)
How perfectly interchangeable we all are on one level and how unique we are from the point of view of the One whose regard matters most.
drollere (sebastopol)
decades ago, solomon asch did a social psychology experiment which showed that individuals will not trust the testimony of their own senses when social pressure (assurance from other people) tells them things are otherwise. the basic finding has been repeated in many different ways since then. this is just a "natural laboratory" replication.
Kathryn (West Palm Beach, Fl)
I can't stop laughing. It must be a sign that my sense of humor has gotten a little too dark. Its a blessing when mistakes are viewed as comedy and help us through our grief. Laughing and crying are so closely related. We must choose the upside of our fortune (for better or worse) or we'd go crazy over our mistakes. A huge number of people are buried every year, this had to happen sometime, right? Also - kudos to the funeral home in being honest about this mistake. A lesser organization would have covered this up.
Megan (Arizona)
LMIAO! Thank God our sweet mom was with us when she died. She was cremated, so we didn't know if those were her remains, but it seems like another plot for a story, by Janet Evanovich!

esp (Illinois)
What happened to the other woman who was already buried? I bet her family wasn't very happy.
Nancy (NYC)
There is no "other woman who was already buried." One woman was cremated, the other remained at the funeral home. The one you think was buried was the one at the funeral home.
dogrunner1 (New York)
Is this very different from newborn babies being inadvertently swapped at a hospital? Hospitals use ID bracelet tags to keep babies properly identified and prevent this, as they cannot speak for themselves. Shouldn't undertakers be required to use tags also?
Megan (Arizona)
My mom had told me when she'd had me, I had almost been switched at birth, funny thing is: I'm WHITE and the other baby was a BLACK child. Mom had said the other mother was a teenager at the same time when I was born!
John Levin (Norwalk CT)
Shameful is how the children were treated. I suspect these same parents tell these kids: "yes, there's a man in the sky who loves you and you should pray to him and if your prayers remain unanswered he still loves you but you're doing something wrong."
one percenter (ct)
Wait a minute, there is no guy in the sky watching me? Then who is going to convince me to start a war? And hate those not like me?
Jack (Middletown, Connecticut)
Horrible mistake but it just goes to show how crazy embalming dead people is. I know you have to do it for a wake but if people only knew what was involved with embalming, I think they would have a closed casket.
Lori Cameron (Ottawa, Ontario Canada)
I was stunned to read that people had been away from their mother for so very long, even when she was dying of cancer. that they could not recognize the woman who raised them; I thought that more sad and shocking than the mistake the funeral parlour made. It was a nice touch that the grandchildren Could recognize her.
Leave Capitalism Alone (Long Island NY)
Have you actually seen someone who's been embalmed after an illness. They're unrecognizable sometimes.
PRN (New Jersey)
Hi I think you misread it, we were with our mom up until the day she passed we just assumed that this is what happened between her leaving the hospital going to the morgue then to the funeral home. And then the funeral home preparation of her.
PRN (New Jersey)
Hi, maybe you misread the article somewhat we were with our mom even up to the day we decided to take off the respirator and she passed later that day. Our inability to recognize her was only due to the fact we told our cells that it was impossible that it was not her
HGuy (<br/>)
All the outrage over something that is news precisely because it has happened exactly once. I'm only surprised it doesn't happen more often. The funeral home should profusely apologize, not charge the family, and live and learn. No need for a lawsuit!
Jill (Laramie, WY)
The same thing happened to a friend's grandmother in Chicago, only the long-estranged"prodigal son" of the family arrived for the funeral, took one look at the deceased, turned to the assembled family at the viewing and bellowed, "THIS IS NOT MY MOTHER!" There was such an uproar the body was wheeled into a separate room, examined, and it was determined that the funeral director HAD made a mistake. Free funeral for my friend's family. Of course I am sorry for the families in this case, but what a story they'll have to tell for the rest of their lives! I cannot help but see the narrative value in these unfortunate but [let's admit it, people] pretty engaging stories.
Megan (Arizona)
How ironic!
DCNancy (Springfield)
Similar incident happened in Washington, DC area a few weeks ago. A family was convinced it wasn't their mother in the coffin. It didn't look like her and the body didn't have the scars their mom had. Identity was eventually verified. The funeral home had used a lot of makeup on the face and covered the scars on the body with makeup. But it was indeed the person it was supposed to be.
Annie Chesnut (Riverside, CA)
This type of thing clearly happens at hospitals -- less so now that everyone who touches you has to confirm your name, birth date, etc. -- so in some ways it seems odd that it doesn't happen more often when the "patient" is dead and can't respond to questions. It also makes you wonder about all the closed-casket funerals that take place. Who really know what's going on?
IMC (Minneapolis)
When Richard McDonald said "it's shameful," I hope he meant the mixup at the funeral home, not the family's failure to recognize the problem right away. Illness and death do indeed tweak people's appearances, sometimes in strange ways. Both families loved and celebrated their departed family member, and neither should feel that they have done wrong in not immediately seeing the mistake.
PRN (New Jersey)
Thanks for that you are correct. I have to admit though that I do bout with the shame when it comes up, but truly it was shameful on that funeral homes part.
Slann (CA)
"Side-by-side photographs of the two women in their coffins suggest they were roughly the same age and size," That's TOTALLY irrelevant. The funeral home could only have made this mistake through pure incompetence. Not keeping the bodies clearly identified is inexcusable. Time for a lawsuit.
Abbott Hall (Westfield, NJ)
Amazing that a funeral home could make such a grave error.
Leave Capitalism Alone (Long Island NY)
Before you know it, they'll be buried in lawsuits.
Megan (Arizona)
Pun intended?
Sorry, it's been a long day!
Kyle (Doylestown, PA)
Such an awful thing to happen at one of life's worst times. And yes, at least the funeral home admitted their wrongdoing. Yet this is also a distressing consequence of our society in which death and funeral conversations are taboo. We're so accustomed to not questioning, and leaving death care to the "professionals," that are own innate knowing is compromised. It would behoove us all to be more open, proactive, and involved WITH our funeral providers. Feeling more comfortable talking about any aspect of death is a good, healthy goal, and helps in the healing process, as well. My condolences to the McDonald family for their loss and pain.
Rick (Miami, Fl.)
That was bound to happen. The people who run that funeral home are not exactly "hands on" when it comes to the actual preparation of the remains. It was just a matter of time.
Dennis McSorley (Burlington, VT)
My sister passed and was cremated once a death certificate was signed. Ashes were then given to us. Then about a year later, the crematory called to say" we have your sister's ashes ready now". OK. Then who's ashes were given to us a year earlier? I wonder if the just don't grab some from somewhere and put them in a box. Does it matter if ashes are correct?
We didn't even question the place- my sister was gone and nothing would return her to life..
Mistakes get made- not as bad as a surgery amputating the wrong limb!
zeno of citium (the painted porch)
...last time i checked, everybody's ash looks the same....
academianut (Vancouver)
The response from the owner, Mr. Alston, is horrendously cold. No concern for the family, no empathy, no willingness to apologize or take responsibility.

You can say all you want how you are so great as a compassionate organizational , yet your actions Mr. Alston betray that lie. And quite possibly this leadership explains how something like this could happen in the first place.
Ellen Freilich (New York City)
First, condolences to the McDonald family on the loss of their formidable matriarch. The mistake should not have occurred, but I give the home credit for coming clean about something that had to be excruciating for them to admit.
PRN (New Jersey)
Hi I don't think it was a matter of coming clean, it was more embarrassed because they couldn't perform the funeral for the other young man's mother. We have yet to receive a letter of apology.
Nancy (NYC)
Oh for heaven's sake call a lawyer. They have insurance just for these things--in this case gross malfeasance, and you can just get a nice settlement and then all of you can use the money for a family reunion of all of the brothers. Or something else that would have pleased your mother.
MLChadwick (<br/>)
I was so stunned during my mother's funeral (I was barely 20) that I didn't even wonder why the funeral parlor had put gloves on her hands even though her hands had been lovely, and she was wearing her favorite nightgown.

A few days later I realized no one knew what had become of her wedding ring...
TR (Saint Paul)
The Mom is probably laughing and shaking her head in heaven, "My 8 kids couldn't even tell it wasn't me!"
PRN (New Jersey)
We said the same thing.
Lyle Russell (Beverly Hills, MI)
Unfortunately for the family and others, this isn't a unique situation. As an attorney, I represented a family whose father's body (5'6", maybe 145 lbs) was confused with that of another individual (6'3", maybe 225 lbs). This, despite recent photos, clothing provided by the family that had to be altered almost beyond comprehension to approximately fit, and vehement conversations with the funeral director ("We do our best, but death alters appearances") culminating in the daughter's forcible removal of the deceased's shirt to demonstrate that an identifying tattoo wasn't there. To top it off, most of the funeral home's file containing photos and descriptions of physical characteristics disappeared. An analogous situation occurred at the funeral home that received the switched body. While this may be rare, the emotional toll on family members can be devastating. Caveat emptor.
retiree (Lincolnshire, IL)
Even with cremation, it is important that someone make certain that the person being cremated is in fact the correct person. There have been many stories over the past decade of crematories that have been less than ethical in dealing with human remains.
Susan (New York, NY)
The only time I never recognized a relative was an aunt of mine that had alzheimer's disease. I went to see her at the assisted living place where she was living. She looked so small and fragile. I checked the room number to make sure it was her room. Alzheimer's disease is a horrible horrible affliction. Not only does it affect the mind, but it affects the body's appearance too.
murphyscat (l.a.)
I had a similar experience at the funeral of my husband's aunt. While I hadn't known her more than maybe 10 years, still I was certain the person in the coffin looked nothing like the woman I remembered. Everybody tried to tell me I was wrong, but to this day I believe it was another person in that casket! I think these errors get made a lot more often than anyone is willing to admit, and I was glad to see this piece today which, at least to some extent, confirms --Yes, it does happen !
Robert T (Colorado)
" “All aspects of the situation were shared with the appropriate government regulating agencies, and therefore we cannot say anything further.”

So this is all the company owes the families and the community. Nothing. Makes sense to avoid these guys for a service requiring such trust.
Passion for Peaches (<br/>)
This reveals a lot about how we adults view death, holding it at arm's length. The person in that coffin is not longer present, we tell ourselves, so of course she looks different from what we remember. We look, but we don't see. We are afraid to see. But young children don't understand death, so they will see the decedent as a person rather than a corpse. I'm not surprised that the kids knew.

I'm sorry for this family's troubles. It must have been a strange and sickening experience for them. I wonder about the family of the stranger, too. What did they go through, with no body to farewell?

My father's funeral was, unfortunately, open coffin (I think it's a horrible tradition). We had a brief, private viewing at the mortuary the night before, more for approval of makeup, clothing and position than for formal period of mourning. It's up to the family to speak up at that time if something is wrong. Once you sign off on everything you release the funeral home of responsibility for errors, at least to some degree, because the mistaken identity is also on you.

I would like to know whether either of these families have filed s lawsuit.
PRN (New Jersey)
Hi we haven't filed any lawsuit, we are still in somewhat disbelief and shame. Each time someone new finds out it opens it all back up again. I performed the funeral and I viewed the other body going into the Crematory so it gets difficult each time someone offers condolences. The Condolence becomes more for what happened then for her passing.
Passion for Peaches (<br/>)
People do mean well. It may be easier for some to respond to this weird and dramatic mixup than to the death that preceded it. In my experience, many people don't know what to say to those in mourning, and will avoid saying anything about the death if there is anything else to talk about.

I am truly sorry for your loss.

I think both families have solid claims against the funeral home, but it's an interesting (to me) question whether the pre-viewing would weaken your case. I think most juries would understand the effects that the fragile emotions and social constraints of the mourning process have on what we see when we look into that open casket.

I wish you healing.
Very sad. And yet, who but the grandkids and great-grandkids would speak up? I guess the children. Her sons must feel awful but if the lady was presented seriously as their mother in their mother's clothes by the funeral home staff I could believe they would be rolled into going along with it. It is a common discussion at an open-casket viewing on 'how good they look' although the concluding 'all things considered' phrase is never stated.
JMD (New Jersey)
With all due respect, someday, long after the grieving process has been completed, the family can gather around the table and toast the memory of their own beloved mother, and also the other woman who became their mother in their time of deepest grief.
In 1975, when I first started my residency in internal medicine, an autopsy was performed on the wrong patient, much to the chagrin of our pathologists. Their consternation, I learned, was related to a prior event in which the wrong cadaver was autopsied. The pathologists tried to cover up their error by switching heads. I am not sure what line of reasoning lead to their absurd decision, but, needless to say their ruse was uncovered, and a scandal ensued. I do not know what happened subsequently, or what the family response was. Our clientele were was largely indigent and underprivileged and may not have known what to do.
Gerry O'Brien (Ottawa, Canada)
The mistake and tragedy aside, Val-Jean McDonald is/was well loved and respected by all those who knew her. This was well demonstrated by the large number of persons who attended the funeral with genuine feelings for her.

She must have been a remarkable woman to have raised eight sons in a crowded Harlem apartment.

Now, what of the other almost identical woman ??? There is no information on this !!! This is sad.
Cleo (New Jersey)
Very sad. But I don't see any great harm. Better to mix up the bodies after death than mix up the babies at birth.
NY (New York)
Many store front Harlem funeral homes are not inspected regularly. For years residents wrote to Department of State, Caesar Perales, Commissioner to address these issues, and the all written requests were ignored.
LittleApple (NYC)
Your family has acted with far more grace than this "stellar" funeral home. My condolences to you and the other family involved, both for your original losses and for this secondary mess.
Sherwood (South Florida)
A sad and story of course but not unusual. My father passed away years ago when he lived in the Bronx. When I went to the funeral home with his cousin (my father was in his late 70's) his cousin looked in the casket that my father was going to be buried in, his cousin told the funeral director that that was not my father in the casket. Of course the correct bodies were switched before the actual funeral. Be aware in this moment of grief, check everything before they place the body of your loved one in a coffin.
GD (Portland, Maine)
Maybe I am very naive, but I had no idea this happens to this extent!
Are bodies not tagged with deceased name before release to funeral home?
Philip (Pompano Beach, FL)
As someone who briefly represented a cemetery in its business matters, I would have referred this case immediately to the funeral home's insurance carrier; as it has all the makings of a MULTI - MILLION DOLLAR lawsuit. The funeral home owner would have been smarter to avoid saying the bodies looked the same to him, as it makes the funeral home look even more liable. "Even the owner was so out of it that he couldn't keep track of the bodies!" One time the cemetery I represented continued to dig a grave while they were having a graveside service about 200 feet away - and in just that lawsuit, they were talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages for the noise pollution during the service.
Realist (Ohio)
Funerals and preparation for them have become industrialized and corporatized, as is the case of health care and most of the rest of our society. Any system is capable of mistakes, through imperfect processes or individual human error. However, bottom-line concerns can overshadow error reduction, and isolate both systems and individuals from responsibility.

Decades ago, the Ford Motor Company decided that it was cheaper to pay off individual victims of the Ford Pinto gas tank explosions than to fix the problem or even apologize. Same as it ever was.
carrie (NYC)
Really sad for the families....I have always wondered whether the cremation ashes of a loved one are really the loved one's ashes....or do they wait until they have about 4 or 5 bodies and cremate all together and just divide the ashes. I'm actually scared to find out.
Giskander (Grosse Pointe, Mich.)
Does it really matter?
Cadence (Los Angeles)
Ms. McDonald's family at least got to pay their respects (twice) to her. The other family, what about them? They have nothing, no opportunity to see their relative, no closure. That'll be the bigger lawsuit! That's the story that should be told here. Why hasn't the NY Times done a complete story here and gotten ahold of that family? It's not hard, read the obituaries - or look on the funeral home's website - it's easy to find that information.

Is the NY Times cutting back on their newsroom as well?
Giskander (Grosse Pointe, Mich.)
This isn't "all the news that's fit to print," it's touchy-feely stuff best left to the tabloid press. For all we know, the Times did get "ahold of that family" but decided to respect their privacy. Try getting some fresh air, out of the gutter.
Richard (<br/>)
Perhaps the other family was unwilling to have their private sorrow turned into a newspaper article.
oldie (MA)
We asked that my husband's face be exposed from the sheet he was wrapped in before he was cremated. We all wanted to be certain there had been no mix-up.
I remember seeing my grandmother in an open casket -it was her but she looked like a waxed doll.
SCA (<br/>)
In Jewish funerals the family/a family member is required to confirm that the body in the casket is indeed the one the mourners are there to honor.

It's helpful of course that "kosher" preparation of the body require no cosmetic alterations. I and my brother are not religiously observant, and it was acceptable to us that the funeral preparations included a minor action to secure my mother's mouth against falling open.

Further, in a Jewish funeral, the body is dressed in a shroud. The deceased's clothes are not used.

Seems as though there is certainly a modern rationale for the straightforward simplicity of these ancient rituals.

I am very sorry for the magnified grief of the McDonald family and for that of the other, unnamed family. One is never, at any age, prepared for the death of a mother. I hope they will take comfort in knowing that their intent to honor her is more important and meaningful, in the ultimate measure, than what happened here.
Dennis M Callies (<br/>)
A Roman Catholic, I wish to have my body not be embalmed. I give my children instructions to give me a Christian burial shortly after my death. The memorial funeral Mass does not require my remains to be present.
animal lover (nyc)
SCA - Please do not speak for all Jewish people/Jewish funerals. My grandaunt, mother, father, aunts, uncles and cousins were all Jewish, as am I, and were embalmed and buried in their own clothes, not shrouds. You are most likely referring to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews who have the customs you described; not modern, secular Jews as most of us are here in the NY Metropolitan area.
SCA (<br/>)
animal lover: My mother was not Orthodox, nor is anyone in my/her family. But certainly she had a Jewish--not a secular--preparation for burial. There is a difference between a Jewish funeral and a funeral held for a Jewish deceased according to that person's individual wishes.
Mtnman1963 (MD)
I would be willing to bet that their failure to recognize that they weren't looking at their own mother will in no way deter them from suing everyone they can think of.
Except that the family's failure to recognize her has absolutely NOTHING to do with the funeral home's negligence.
charles almon (brooklyn NYC)
And justifiably so.
PRN (New Jersey)
Why would you say that?. We never even asked for a refund. Thanks for your concern.
julia g (toronto, ontario)
When admitted to a hospital, patients immediately receive a plasticized id bracelet. I'm sure this practice arose from many disastrous events.
Perhaps what has happened here will spur a similar practice in funeral homes.
Dandy (Maine)
In mogues, a toe tag is usual. (Obviously, mistake are or were often made.)
Amy Raffensperger (Elizabethtown pa)
If she died in the hospital, her hospital identification band should still have been on her as well, making this doubly inexcusable.
S.L. (Briarcliff Manor, NY)
This article glosses over the fact that another woman's body was desecrated by being cremated in place of Val-Jean McDonald. Maybe her family was vehemently against cremation and now has no body to bury. I'm sorry the McDonalds didn't insist that the body in the coffin was not their mother. I am sorrier for the other family who now doesn't have the same privilege of performing the funeral rites which are important to them.
Christopher Todd (<br/>)
This was one of the first things that went through my mind. "What of the other family???"

I feel bad for everyone involved: both families, the funeral home and the person who made the mistake. I can't imagine that they did this intentionally. I know I would be eaten up over this if it were my mistake.
Amy Raffensperger (Elizabethtown pa)
I agree, the MacDonald family still got their mother's body back to do with as they wished. The family of the other woman are the true victims, in my opinion.
PRN (New Jersey)
Yes exactly! I performed the funeral my self and saw them place that other body to be cremated. We were shocked about our mom but devastated that we did that to someone else mother. I even offered what pictures we had to the funeral home to give to the other family, but they didn't accept them.
ShirleyW (New York City)
Is it not mandatory for a family member to view the body before the services are held? At least it was at the Funeral Home that handled both my parents services, I would think that would be a mandatory procedure at all Funeral Homes to avoid what happened to this family.
Alex (Los Angeles)
I remember being discouraged from any viewing at all of my father's unembalmed body due to the decay that sets in just after death. At the graveside service (the only service) there wasn't a way, or a custom, to actually check. Theoretically it might not be his remains there, or my mother's. I guess one always trusts.
Walla Walla (NY)
The real tragedy is that she had 8 sons, most of whom did not see her while she was in the hospital or involved in her care in her finals months, to the point that they did not know what she looked like in her final days. That probably broke her heart more -- aware that her sons did not visit her in her dying days -- than being mistaken in her own funeral. The latter is farcical for a dead body, but the former is heartbreaking for a dying mother.
PRN (New Jersey)
I guess you are one of my brothers. Several of us were there when we stopped her respirator.
nana2roaw (albany)
I was with my mother in her final days when she weighed less than 90 pounds. I asked the funeral director to make her look like her old self so her elderly friends wouldn't be upset I wouldn't have recognized the before and after as the same person. The funeral home did a good job but her final appearance was a little off. I can understand how this happened
Amanda123 (Brooklyn, NY)
No where in the article did it state that the family wasn't around or not involved in her care.

I saw the body of a relative in the hospital when she just died and they disconnected the tubes and remember being amazed at how different she looked in her coffin a week later, and she wasn't even old. An 81 year old body ravaged by cancer and everyone grieving. - I can see how this can happen.
Sasha Love (Austin TX)
When my grandmother died at 90, she didn't look anything like when she was alive. The funeral home had smoothed out her wrinkles, puffed up her face, and her whole face looked like a mannequin. I knew it was her, but her appearance was not like she appeared in life. I definitely want to be cremated and do not want an open viewing beforehand.
PRM (New Jersey)
To think, we never received an official apology. I've even offered pictures to the funeral home for the other family of their deceased loved one. The only conversation I had with the manager was me praying for her comfort because she really took it hard.
CK (Rye)
If this was about a pretty white girl or a celebrity, or even a beloved pet, the same posters here who see not need to be upset would be up in arms. That about says it all.
heliotrophic (St. Paul)
That is simply not true. Frankly, many of us think - for reasons religious or otherwise - that the body does not matter after death and that open-casket funerals are barbaric. In a generic sense, I'm sorry for people who did not get what they want from a funeral. However, I think the whole thing is ridiculous. Why do people spend money on dead bodies that could be better spent on live ones? (I ask rhetorically - no need to answer.)
Walla Walla (NY)
I hope they hadn't scattered the ashes. Not that the ashes would have any DNA proof of the person that was cremated. The only tangible evidence is just a photograph of the first woman, in someone else's funeral dress.
PRN (New Jersey)
And me seeing the funeral home handshake the man as he slides the coffin into the place where they burn the body that image will always be with us.
LongTimeBiker (New York)
(Continuing from my earlier post)

8 years ago, my mother passed. When I went to the open coffin, I didn’t recognize that. No one had given the mortician a picture of my mother and she was presented with an unfamiliar hairstyle and her mouth was positioned in an unfamiliar way. I tried to convince myself it was her and finally approached my sister about it. She redid my mother’s hair and even repositioned her face. I finally saw a resemblance to my mother in that corpse. In short, I knew it was her just by the laws of probability, but if someone asked me, “Are you sure that is your mother?” I couldn’t say beyond a doubt.

So going back to this article about the mixup, should they have asked in this case? Earlier regarding my mother I very clearly said that I couldn’t say beyond a doubt, not beyond a REASONABLE doubt. To me it was reasonable that this was my mother. If it were a different family, what would have happened if I said it wasn’t my mother and my sister said it was? Or if both of us said it wasn’t.

Death and funerals are complex social and psychological times for everyone involved. My feeling is that everyone involved should just make sure they get everything right on the provenance of the body. Would it mean that mistakes will never be made? Of course not, but with all the questions people have around the death of a friend or family member, they shouldn’t be asking themselves, “Is that my father?”. In my case, it wouldn’t have mattered.
Jessy (New York NY)
As my mother neared death from cancer, one of my biggest (if irrational) fears was that I would remember her as she looked in her last years - older than her years, weak and frail, and with very little hair due to chemo. We gave the funeral home a picture of her, hale and healthy, and the wig that she never used but looked like her "old" hair.

When my father, sister, and I walked into the viewing room for the first time, I burst into tears. Not out of sadness, but from pure relief that my mother - the one in my mind, the one I wanted to remember - was before me. What a gift, to have my last images of her physical body be the ones that matched my lifelong memories.
phil morse (cambridge, ma)
If they'd been smart they would never have called and so to speak, buried it under a rug.
LuckyDog (NYC)
Unethical behavior is never smart. And the other family, the family of the woman who was already cremated, may have refused to take on the funeral costs for the unknown woman they were asked to bury, in the mix-up. As per my post, the NY Times only has reported part of this story - an important part, for sure, but not all of the story at all.
Paul Drake (Not Quite CT)
I think the willingness to acknowledge the the error once it was caught speaks well of the funeral home.
Jennifer Glen (Westchester County)
A mistake like this shouldn't be made especially in such a delicate moment where everyone is mourning for the life of another. Nevertheless I hope Mr.Alston gets over his pride and realize that he made a huge mistake that has tremendously impacted and has played with the emotions of both families. I hope they learn their lesson and not take this form of a job as just something to be done. Remember these are people that are dearly loved and respected by many, funeral homes should give the utmost respect to these individuals who have passed away.
Giskander (Grosse Pointe, Mich.)
Good time to pull out and re-read Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death." It's still in print.
laytonian (Utah)
"Grave Matters" by Mark Harris is more current.
It presents alternatives.
Laurence (Rockland ME)
Hopefully the funeral parlor paid for BOTH cremations!
PRN (New Jersey)
We paid for our mom. And never heard a word back from the funeral home.
Nancy (NYC)
It's pleasant to think of them reading this article isn't it? Small minded perhaps, but pleasant. Your mother must have been a grand lady to have raised you to be sensible and possessed of a sense of humor as a group. There must be laughter in Paradise.
cyclone (beautiful nyc)
Sad, heart felt story. It's happened before, I'm sure. What's remarkable is how the family didn't believe their eyes, or rather, there was enough credibility. What about closed coffin burials? Family members should be offered more involvement behind the scenes. Ultimately, funerals are for the living.
A reader (San Francisco)
My mother was cremated. We did not have her body at the service, so the last time we saw her body was when the funeral service took her away from her bed. It's been 7 1/2 years, and I wonder at times if the ashes we got were indeed hers. Then I tell myself it was just a vessel not her spirit, essence or the memories. We scattered her ashes in many parts of the world. She is everywhere.
JO (San Francisco)
In the end does it really matter?
PRN (New Jersey)
To loved ones yes. As a Christian family a funeral in a very symbolic part of one's memory they destroyed the last part of her memory for us. We can never talk about my mother's funeral without a sense of Shame.
Gordon (New Orleans)
JO's comment was very insensitive, and I'm glad that your responded to it. My sincere condolences for your loss and the ordeal that you and your family have been put through.
LongTimeBiker (New York)
My father passed away over 20 years ago. As in the Jewish tradition, there was to be a closed coffin. My mother and sister said their final farewells. I stood alone for about 20 minutes saying my goodbyes, kissed him and started to walk away.

As I did, the funeral director came up to me and said, “Excuse me. I hope you understand, but before I close the lid I have to ask you ‘Is that your father?’”. My mind was unsurprisingly in another place when he asked, but after a moment replied, “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask my mother”

Of course I realized what he was really asking and I was both amused and annoyed that he was just covering himself for potential lawsuits if he got it wrong (as was the case in this article). While I was pleased with my snarky retort, it cheapened the prior 20 minutes I had just spent saying my last goodbyes.

Dandy (Maine)
For my Jewish father's funeral there was an open casket, not a closed one. My brother and I lived elsewhere when he died, but when we saw him in the casket we both broke into tears: it was definitely him, all right, in his prayer shawl, but dead. It was an awful feeling, knowing we would never see him again. A terrible shock which never goes away. For this family, the shock is doubled and the other family as well. My condolences to both families.
heliotrophic (St. Paul)
@ LongTimeBiker: Did it really cheapen the time before it? In my family, your quick joking reflexes would have been considered a fine thing and not cheapening at all.
dredpiraterobts (Same as it never was)
What makes this story newsworthy is the Prosopagnosia of the sons.

I think it is a lesson to all of us that we often see what we expect to see, regardless of the facts.

My condolences go out to the family. No one wants such a personal occasion to become a national punchline. No one wants their "15 Minutes of fame" to be for such of a thing.

As far as the funeral home is concerned, yes it was a mistake, and yes it is going to HURT! That's real life. You make a mistake, you pay for the mistake. Someone makes a mistake behind the wheel, and the results may be life altering.

I'm sorry for your loss, and I think you'll come out the other end well enough. But, that's business for ya'.
PRN (New Jersey)
It wasn't a matter of our brain not being able to recognize our mother it was a matter of respect and Trust placed in a funeral home.
Eli (Boston, MA)
First my double condolences and sympathy for the loss of a loved and the distress caused by this mishap.

What happened is explained by the "Black Swan" theory by Taleb that among other points it states that is very hard to perceive what we do not expect to see. It is the "naked emperor syndrome" in Hans Christian Andersen's the Emperor's New Clothes fairy tale. It took a child to call it as it really was.

Moral of the story: trust youth with their clear vision and uncompromised and uncorrupted heart.
Jana Hesser (Providence, RI)
Is this some kind of reference to youth supporting Bernie Sanders?

I would like to point out that it is not only the under 30 year old majorities that support Bernie but the over 60 years old majorities as well, in states that Bernie won with double digits. This includes Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Colorado, Maine, and of course Vermont and many more in the remaining calendar.
Todd Fox (Earth)
This really isn't an article about the election. Really.
Jaiet (New York, New York)
Jana, there is a time and a place for advocating for your preferred presidential candidate. This particular comments section isn't it.
Joe (Jerusalem)
The problem lies not so much in casket burials as it does in cremations when the owner/workers of the place, where the cremation takes place, do not take time for the furnace to cool before it is cleaned of all human remains. As a result, there can be two or more individuals in the remains after it has been mechanically reduced to smaller fragments, not to mention gold tooth crowns which are seldom if ever returned to the family.
Jus' Me, NYT (Sarasota, FL)
This is true, but it has nothing to do with the story, ya know?
JackSteen (Chicago Streets)
The funeral home should refund the cost of the botched funerals to the families involved - both of them.

"Hearfelt apologies" and " deepest sorrows" don't even BEGIN to make up for the horror and confusion this ignorance has caused the families and other loved ones of the two mis-identified women.
CK (Rye)
The funeral home should be sued for emotional distress etc. Get real.
Um, what about the other woman originally thought to be Ms. McDonald, and *her* family? Since her remains were cremated the first time around, her family was denied the opportunity to say goodbye to her at all. (A small consolation, but at least the McDonalds had a second chance.)
Amy Raffensperger (Elizabethtown pa)
I agree!
Nancy (NYC)
Their mother was "lying naked under a sheet." That tells you EVERYTHING about this slack establishment. The rudeness! The continuing disrespect! They could at least have respectfully clothed--or draped--this corpse so the visting son saw his mothers face, and hands, on a table draped in linen or tulle, and not had to view his mother as if she were in a morgue. Even if she was.
CK (Rye)
My condolences to the McDonalds on this rather heart breaking turn of events. Talk about a gut punch. And there's another family that has every right to be even more upset, let's not forget about them. What a disaster, in what ought to be the one thing a done right in handling a deceased person: maintaining chain of custody.

Hopefully a number of really tough lawyers are reading this, and soliciting this family to offer help in suing the pants off of this incompetent bunch of jokers at McCall's Bronxwood Funeral Home. Check out the lawyer's performance records and pick the one you think will lay it on toughest.

The few posts here (so far) read like a bunch of Trump supporters. Zero empathy, endless self absorption and worry that a business will be called on it's disastrous performance. Racism lurks in their tone.
Clem (Shelby)
You have people here saying, "Don't get upset. It's not a big deal. Forgive and forget." And you have people saying, "It's an outrage. Sue."

Maybe it's up to the two families. Maybe they need time to figure out how they feel. Maybe they don't need to be pressured into forgiving before they are ready, pretending they are not upset when they are, or taking actions they are not ready to take. It's pretty obnoxious for an outsider to tell them how to feel and how to react.
Skippy (Boston)
Is it not the family's responsibility to let the funeral home know there had been a mistake? If the children are unable to identify their mother, how can they be angry with the funeral home for making the same mistake?
CK (Rye)
The idea that a funeral home gets a pass on presenting the wrong body is ludicrous and smacks in this case, "Skippy," of veiled racism. Dead bodies can look markedly different, the seriousness of a home's activity implies they that questioning them is not proper, family are in mourning. You need human empathy lessons.
PRN (New Jersey)
You place a certain amount of trust in any professional. They picked her body up from the morgue prepared her, brought her to the funeral we paid them for those services, they caused us to feel safe enough to trust them and we didn't imagine that the unimaginable was possible.
Skippy (Boston)
I apologize for giving offense: None was intended. Would you (or someone) kindly explain how my comment "smacks...of racism"? I'm genuinely puzzled.
LittleApple (NYC)
This family has every right to be angry. And what about the other family? They must feel truly bereft. From the sound of it, they never got to mourn over a body at all.
Pastor Rich (New Jersey)
To think, we never received an official apology. I've even offered pictures to the funeral home for the other family of their deceased loved one. The only conversation I had with the manager was me praying for her comfort because she really took it hard.
heliotrophic (St. Paul)
Yikes. While this seems to have been an honest mistake, it does seem like the funeral home is doing everything wrong in handling it. Why would they even think of doing anything other than refunding all money to both families and sending each a very sincere apology? Wow.
SRF (New York, NY)
The McDonalds shouldn't feel guilty for not realizing it wasn't their mother. It's true that if someone dies on a respirator it can distort their features. I've seen that happen (with dismay). As for the funeral home, well, it was a mistake, and in the end, Val-Jean McDonald was much more than her body. She is the one who was honored and remembered.

But what about the other family? To think of the call they got!
EbbieS (USA)
The story seems incomplete without a quote from the other family, actually.
A Mann (New York)
It is terrible, but the family got to say their goodbyes (twice).

What about the other woman's family? What if they didn't want her cremated?
LuckyDog (NYC)
Sending sympathy to both families wronged in this clear mistake at the funeral home. What about the other family, the relatives of the woman cremated first? Things were done to her body - viewed by strangers, albeit inadvertently, and cremated without their consent. There are clearly 2 wronged families here, but little mention of the other family in this article - why? It cannot be too difficult to review the obituaries of the women of this age who were at the same funeral home within the same week, to find the other family and see what they think - that's the kind of reporting we expect from the NY Times, the full story and not this piece of the story.
JR (Providence, RI)
The other family, which in the end had no say about the handling of the body of their loved one, is likely shattered and may have asked for privacy. I hope they are granted that shred of dignity, at least.
susie (New York)
Perhaps the other family does not want to discuss it. Best not to intrude.
Michael Rich (Jacksonville, Ala.)
I'm not sure this is fair. You could come up with guesses, but nothing provable without confirmation, which nobody is providing. It's common for a funeral home to have a body of an indigent or otherwise unattended body. Not everyone shows up in obituaries, especially now that most papers only print paid obits. The other person is in no position to acquiesce to having her name and privacy involved in a story, so there are ethical questions in my mind as well.
Paul (Huntington, W.Va.)
A sad mistake, indeed, but it sounds like a mistake. Unless someone can prove that this was done with the intention of causing distress, or a reckless disregard for the feelings of the family, it ought to be accepted as a mistake. The family still got their funeral, and their goodbyes, and that's what really mattered.

Part of coming to terms with a loved one's death is remembering all the happy times, the love and cherished memories and stories to be told over and over. And when the pain of this event has faded, it could become just one more of those stories. "Mom was so special, they had to cremate her TWICE!"
JR (Providence, RI)
The family of the other woman -- the one cremated in Ms. McDonald's place -- did not get their funeral and their good-byes.
Donna (<br/>)
reply to Paul: It is statements like yours that make me physically ill: Always trotting out the "Unless someone can prove..." If someone "mistakenly" ran over your loved one and killed them- it would not be intentional- but they would still be dead- no wouldn't they? Would you then be so generous with your sentiments? No one here needs your nonchalance and esoteric observations about "coming to terms with a loved one's death". This was horrible for both families. You assume so much with your rather self righteous ruminations about how others should feel: Shame on you Sir.
Paul (Huntington, W.Va.)
You seem to be the self-righteous one here, going on about how you're physically ill, describing my thoughts as "nonchalant, esoteric, self-righteous, and shameful". It's not your job to pass judgment on somebody else's feelings.

My point was that the story and many of the early comments were about suing and punishing the funeral home. Translating someone's death and funeral into an occasion to seek retribution or monetary gain. The assumption that because a mistake is distressing, somebody ought to be punished and somebody else ought to get something for it. I think that cheapens human life, instead of celebrating it. I shouldn't get a payout every time somebody else's callousness or incompetence hurts me; nobody should lose their jobs or their business because I got angry about a mistake.

Life is full of disappointments and sad occasions, but it's also full of joy and silliness. Nobody should allow themselves to be crushed by unfortunate events like this, and with the passage of time perhaps the pain will be replaced by the realization that nothing that happened after their mother died could hurt her.

Suing people before you even know the extent of their responsibility, or encouraging others to sue, seems to be the fashion nowadays. Rather like public shaming. Two fads that we could do with less of.
Janice (Houston)
A businessman such as Mr. Alston, who claims his company is known for compassion and professionalism, failed to have either of those qualities by saying tactlessly that his clients' loved one "looks like the same woman to me." He should have stuck to having no comments rather than giving a pathetic one.
This is a terrible mistake, but it's a mistake. Personally I would check the 'stellar record' at McCall's and if it were indeed stellar then I would let it go. If it were my mother the worst thing about it would be that I didn't recognize that it wasn't her lying in the coffin. It may be that the family's guilt is what is behind some of their anger.
nom de guerre (Kirkwood, MO)
Funny, I didn't have the impression the family was angry.
McCall's owner could have been more sympathetic; he seemed rather defensive. Saying the women in the photographs "Looks like the same woman to me" was quite insensitive.
Deep South (Southern US)
Although the funeral home is clearly incompetent, I have to wonder if any of this matters.

The family gathered to say good bye, which they did. The grandmother was dead; no funeral home can change that fact. The ceremony took place, the mourners mourned, and the grieving process began.

What, if anything, is the effect of this error? The crematory did their work a few days late, that's all. That doesn't change the death, or the mourning, or the family's loss.

What's the big deal?
Marnee Klein (Philadelphia)
The elephant in the room to me is what the other family has to go through. They never had the opportunity to say goodbye in the same way that this family did.
CK (Rye)
Given average self-esteem, normal sense of economic justice, & ordinary empathy, there is no difficulty understanding the "big deal." Those attributes can't be given to you in a comment forum post, you'll have to use your imagination.
John Berard (Aurora. Oregon)
What about the family of the other woman? Whose body did they gather around to say good-bye?
Maggie Carneiro (Yorkotwn, NY)
I certainly hope that no one gets the bright idea of suing anybody else. This unfortunate farce ought to be left to rest in peace.
FJP (Philadelphia, PA)
Well, the first thing that the funeral home can do to preserve goodwill here is to refund to the McDonald family the entire amount they paid for their services.

There's also the matter of the other family involved. The woman in the casket was someone else's mother, grandmother, sister, wife. I sure hope they are not finding out about this snafu by reading about it in the paper.
BB (Boston)
This is America. I'll be amazed if no-one gets sued..
bfrllc (Bronx, NY)
Inexcusable and unacceptable... The family should sue on whatever applicable legal grounds.
MAGGIE (Belleville IL)
It would be a sad day indeed if they sued. Mistakes happen. The funeral parlor owned and admitted their mistake. No intentional harm or neglect took place. It is unfortunate indeed, but the publicity is more than enough to make sure this doesn't happen again.
JDR (Philadelphia)
Of course the famly will sue...lawyers live for situations like this!
Laurence (Rockland ME)
What about the cost of the cremations - two of them? The funeral home should cover those, both of them.
Jim (Baltimore)
When I first saw my father at his viewing I did not think it was him. His nose was different, they cut his hair in a way he never had it. His face definitely had changed in death. But, a look at his hands reassured me it was him. At least this funeral home was honest about the error, and did not try to cover up.
See also