Lisa Kondvar, of Warwick, and her family discovered another woman's body in the casket at a New Jersey funeral home last month. The body of her mother, Margaret Porkka, had been prepared at a funeral home on the island.
"I looked up, and I was like, 'Good God, are you kidding me?' I was stunned," Kondvar said by telephone Friday.
The family proceeded with the wake, with the casket closed, because they discovered the mistake just before calling hours were about to begin.
The relatives believe a hospital or funeral home confused Porkka's body with that of a Canadian woman who died on the island around the same time. They also think Porkka's body was cremated in Ottawa.
The family wants to know for sure and will take possession of the ashes if they are determined to be those of Porkka, Kondvar said.
The two dead women bore no resemblance to one another and were of different frames and heights, she said. The family has hired a detective and is looking for an international attorney.
St. Maarten Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams said Friday the government there has formed a committee to investigate the case at the request of U.S. officials and will conduct a DNA analysis to verify the identities of both bodies.
She said the women were in their 80s and died Nov. 29 from natural causes and their bodies were flown to the U.S. on the same airline. She said the body flown to Canada was cremated.
Emerald Funeral Home director Orlando Vanterpool said he took the bodies to the airport on the same day and the air trays containing the bodies were identical.
"To my knowledge, we sent the correct human remains," he said. "Everything was regulated with the government. All the paperwork was in order, but apparently somewhere, somehow, something happened."
Vanterpool said he would give the family a refund if the government determines a mistake was made.
Kondvar said her sister wasn't allowed to see the body on the island and the funeral home wouldn't release it unless the family wired $7,000 in cash because it wouldn't accept a check or credit cards.
Vanterpool said Emerald Funeral Home has a policy of not releasing human remains until the necessary payments have been made, especially if the remains are being flown abroad.
St. Maarten, which is part of the Netherlands, shares a Caribbean island with St. Martin, a French dependency. Porkka and the family were there over Thanksgiving.
Kondvar said her 82-year-old father, who lives in Englewood, N.J., and couldn't make the trip to St. Maarten, is distraught after being unable to say goodbye to his wife of more than 60 years.
"He's very angry and very bitter," she said.
Kondvar said a cause of death for her mother hasn't been provided and the death certificate issued in St. Maarten listed her as a man.
Associated Press reporter Judy Fitzpatrick in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, contributed to this report.Suggest a correction