Kin bury wrong body

Take note – story published 6 years ago

In early April a family in the Jūrmala resort town underwent nothing short of a nightmare. They laid to rest who they thought was their recently deceased father. It was instead someone else. The police are investigating the case. 

At the edge of the Jūrmala cemetery, near the fence, funeral wreaths and flowers are withering away massed into a pile. There was a grave here just a day earlier, which is now replaced by white leveled soil. Due to an as of yet unclear circumstances, a Jūrmala family buried a stranger here thinking he was one of their own.

In late March, the police told Alla Pasternaka her father had died. The man, aged 65, was found on the street with a head injury. His remains were transported to the Center for Forensic Medical Examination in the Latvian capital Rīga, about 30 km away from Jūrmala.

The deceased spent eight days at the center's Thanatology Department, and the family was then allowed to lay him to rest.

"We buried him at 11 a.m. and at 2.52 p.m. I was told it was not our father we buried," she said. 

Alla learned this from the funeral home Sēru nams in charge of the funeral. They had in turn been informed by the forensic center. Early on the institution tried blaming the family, saying it was their fault they did not recognize that it is, in fact, a stranger who is being laid underground. 

It was the first relative Alla ever buried, and her father's death had shook her greatly. 

"I looked at the legs and arms of the deceased. I was afraid to look at the face. I did not want to faint, as it was very painful to me as it was, not to mention looking at him lying there," she said. 

When the priest was saying a prayer, Alla had looked at her father's face. It had seemed strange, but she thought it may be related to the head injury and her own shaken state. 

"I thought I was maybe going insane. It was a huge stress for me. I did not know what to think," she said. 

Other funeral guests said that the man's appearance had been different, but no one suspected that it is indeed a stranger in the casket. 

Alla's sorrow was further exacerbated by the events that followed. Someone called her and made an insidious offer.

"Someone called me from the morgue and asked, Is it okay for you if we get him out at night silently and then you come on the morrow and say your goodbyes. We'll get him inside the same clothes and put him inside the casket," she said. 

She refused the offer. Latvian law only allows for exhumation with a court order. The relatives' unwillingness to break the law, somewhat surprisingly, had angered the employees at the forensics center. 

One Nadežda Skidenko, the head of the Thanatology Department at the center, had according to Alla asked her to sign a permit to exhume her father. 

Upon visiting the said department, Latvian Radio found it was as still as a grave. Latvian Radio had to wait for half an hour to see Nadežda Skidenko, who was accompanied by her deputy Jolanta Vamze-Liepiņa. 

Skidenko said she's informed about the case, but cannot offer comment: "No, no! We cannot offer any comment at this time, as a criminal case has been launched...we are not allowed to give any comment."

At this time the family has come to agreement with the center that it will pay for the second funeral. But it refuses to pay moral damages. 

"Burying one's father for the second time. It's unbelievably difficult! It was an awful day, the most awful in my life, and it seems I have to live through it for the second time," said a worried Alla. 

Diāna Černova, a representative of the Sēru nams funeral home, said that the situation is unacceptable. 

"I think there's some interior mix-up [at the forensics center]. Either they had missed something, or maybe it happened at the time when [the man] was taken here," she said. 

The deceased people who have to be taken to forensics due to police request are transported by the firm titled simply Angel. The people involved in this story say that the company had brought two corpses to postmortems during a single run, which is illegal.  

Latvian Radio was unable to acquire a comment from Angel. Their office in Jūrmala is closed. Reached on the phone, they promised to find out what's happened but never called back.

Meanwhile the manager of the Jūrmala cemetery, Guntars Lasis, told Latvian Radio that it's an unprecedented case in Latvia.

"There was a court order, following which [the man] was exhumed," he said. 

Police are investigating the awful mix-up. Alla, meanwhile, has already said her goodbyes to her father for the second time. Her father now rests in peace. 

The victims intend to go to court, and possibly the second family, whose relative was buried by strangers, will do so as well.

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