There is little in life more devastating than losing a child. It goes without saying that the last thing grieving parents should have to deal with is a funeral home operating with such disregard so as to lose, discard or otherwise misplace the body of a recently deceased child. For expecting parents S.F. and S.L., the tragedy of their beautify baby girl being stillborn was only the start of a nightmarish string of events which ultimately lead to them to our office in desperate search of answers.
Following the stillbirth of their baby daughter, and upon finally being discharged from the hospital where this horror began, these young parents contacted McWhite’s Funeral Home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to began the painful process of making arrangements for the burial of their daughter. The funeral was held on 10/30/18. They had a custom-made dress and jewelry, in which their daughter was to be laid to rest. Family members and friends came to show their love and support. The room was held was decorated with flowers and other decorations. To help with the mourning process, the parents requested that the casket be open from 11:00am to 12:00pm; however, Mr. McWhite did not open the casket. When they requested he do so, he initially tried to discourage them before relenting at the parents’ insistence.
It was at that time, the family realized something was amiss. The parents noticed that their baby looked very different and much larger than they recalled from the hospital. They questioned Mr. McWhite, who told them this was due to the embalming process. They were confused and distraught, but they ultimately trusted his explanation. After the ceremony at McWhite’s Funeral Home, the family and friends proceeded to the cemetery where they laid their precious baby to final rest. Or so they thought.
A few days after the burial, and without any explanation, the parents received concerning correspondence along with a “Disinterment Order” that required their signature. When the parents questioned the need for this form, they were eventually told the truth. McWhite’s Funeral Home had mishandled their daughter’s remains. The funeral home provided them with the deceased body of another baby, and it was this other baby that was buried in their daughter’s grave, wearing their daughter’s clothes, and bearing the jewelry they personalized for their daughter. The gravity of the neglect left them in shock and disbelief. The thought of the ceremony, and all the prayers and tears shed over the body of a baby that was not theirs was overwhelming. Then the even more horrific reality set in; where was their baby? What about the poor family of the baby they incorrectly laid to rest? It defied understanding.
The parents returned to the cemetery on 11/8/18 and went through the painful process of selecting a grave site for their daughter once again. They returned to McWhite’s Funeral Home that same day to verify that their baby daughter’s body was still there. When they arrived they were shocked to see that their daughter’s body was simply wrapped in plastic, appearing decayed and withered. They broke down in tears again; the image forever seared into their minds.
The parents knew that they needed to place their daughter at rest as soon as possible, and the burial was scheduled for the following day. There were no flowers. Family and friends could not attend on this short notice. There was no custom dress or jewelry. And as if they had not been through enough, when they arrived at the funeral home on 11/9/18 they were told their daughter’s body was already taken to the cemetery and that their daughter was wrapped in plastic and sealed in her coffin. They were told that they could not re-open the coffin. Although becoming somewhat numb to repeated disregard for the dignity life and sanctity of death shown by McWhite’s Funeral Home, the parents were once again devastated. They refused to bury their daughter in that condition and insisted that the coffin be returned to the funeral home so that they could at least dress her in an outfit they had just purchased. The funeral home finally relented, and the baby was returned to the funeral home to be dressed. The burial went forward later that afternoon. The parents brought balloons and cards, said their prayers and said goodbye yet again.
Losing their daughter was the hardest thing S.F. and S.L. should have ever had to deal with. Unfortunately, in addition to having to deal with that loss, they now have to forever live with the horrible memory of how their baby daughter’s body was mishandled. They have to live with the image of their baby girl’s withered body, wrapped in plastic at the funeral home more than a week after they thought she had been laid to rest. For the rest of their lives the memory of their baby girl will always include the horrific mishandling of her delicate body.
Not knowing what else to do, S.F. and S.L. contacted our office in November of 2018. We immediately took over all dealings with the funeral home, identified all negligent acts and statutory violations and began working to right this wrong. It was clear from the outset that the funeral home was negligent in the handling this deceased baby girl. This negligence was then compounded by the attempted cover up, where information was being purposefully withheld and signatures were sought without explanation. In February 2019, we filed a lawsuit against McWhite’s Funeral Home for both compensatory and punitive damages pursuant to Fla. Stat. §497.607 and §497.169, as well as basic common law negligence principles. Within a just a few weeks of the filing of our lawsuit, the funeral home paid the family the full amount available under their insurance policy given the circumstances, which resulted in a $500,000.00 settlement. Nothing can undo what was done or make up for the horrific handling of this baby girl’s remains. But if obtaining the above settlement and delivering some measure of justice against this funeral home for what they did brought some small measure of relief to this family, we did our job.
It is easy for funeral homes, cemeteries and crematories to do their job correctly. When they fail to do so, immeasurable harm can be caused to the lasting memory of a loved one. Hopefully this case sends a message to not only McWhite’s Funeral Home, but every funeral home in the state: this kind of negligence cannot be tolerated.