BERWICK, N.S. — A Nova Scotia family grieving the loss of a relative said they were stunned when they went to a local funeral home for her service only to be presented with the bodies of two other women — and then told their loved one had accidentally been cremated.
Relatives of Sandra Bennett say they arrived at the Serenity Funeral Home in Berwick on Dec. 27 for a visitation following her death a week earlier after a prolonged illness.
They say they had planned to have an open casket service, but when they looked inside they saw the body of another woman dressed in Bennett's clothing.
"I was shocked," Bennett's sister, Carolyn Dominey, said Wednesday. "It's like they degraded my sister's body against her wishes."
Dominey and her daughter, JoAnne, said staff at the funeral home insisted the woman in the casket was in fact Bennett. When they realized it wasn't, the family says they were presented with another body in the casket purchased by Bennett's husband, Gary.
Again, it was not Bennett.
"(I thought) this can't be true. This is something you hear about on a TV show or somewhere in the States, but not in a small community," JoAnne Dominey said from her mother's home.
"No one needs to go through this, especially over the holidays. It's hard enough losing a loved one without this happening. I wouldn't want anyone else to go through this."
JoAnne Dominey said the family was then told Bennett was mistakenly cremated. But, she says it's not clear that the ashes they were given were actually those of Bennett.
"They weren't sure if it was even her ashes," she said. "We still don't know."
Serenity Funeral Home did not respond to a request for comment.
Gary Bennett did not want to comment on the matter, saying it was too emotional and "like going through a nightmare."
His lawyer, Paul Walter, said in an email that his firm was in the process of gathering information and arranging meetings with affected family members.
"This has been unquestionably, an horrific experience for Gary and his family — an experience that no grieving family should ever have to go through," he said in the email.
"We intend to take all appropriate legal measures to ensure that the individuals whom we represent are fully and fairly compensated for the negative impact this ordeal has had and continues to have on their lives."
The agency that regulates funeral homes in Nova Scotia is investigating the bizarre mix-up and says it is likely the first time they have looked into such a case.
Adam Tipert, chairman of the Nova Scotia Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, said they are examining how the home handled Bennett's remains and ultimately how the 65-year-old woman was cremated, despite wishes from her family that that not take place.
Tipert said they were notified of the matter by the funeral home and are in the preliminary stages of gathering information on the chain of custody for her body, what discussions were held with the family and what documentation was in place.
He said multiple documents are required for a legal cremation and that they explicitly spell out what the wishes are for the deceased.
"Clearly what we're dealing with here is human error, so you can have all the permits and documents in the right order but if you're putting them with the wrong remains ... they can't guarantee that you still have the right body," he said. "There's room for error."
Tipert said the priority for the board, which mandates professional conduct for the sector, is the welfare of the families affected by the unusual mix-up while trying to ensure it does not happen again.
"The funeral sector is granted a responsibility of lending professional guidance and direction to families at the most difficult time and when an error like this occurs it has certainly removed the opportunity for them to properly grieve," he said. "It's very difficult for the families and that's why the board wants to take an active approach in looking into what the possible outcomes might be."
He said the board has the authority to suspend or revoke licences at funeral homes if it found that professional standards were not met.
- By Alison Auld in Halifax