Over one hundred mourners viewed Val-Jean McDonald's body at her funeral at Union Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. Her children thought she looked different than she had in life but rationalized that her cancer, final days spent in a hospital bed, and the embalming process had altered appearance. Her grandchildren claimed that the woman in the coffin was not their grandmother. The following day the family attended Ms. McDonald’s cremation at Woodlawn Cemetery. Six days later McCall’s Bronxwood Funeral Home contacted the McDonald family and informed them that they had made a mistake. Ms. McDonald’s grandchildren had been correct: Val-Jean McDonald was not in the coffin that day and her body had not been cremated, in fact the woman in the coffin was Annie Pearl Little.
Annie Pearl Little’s son, Donald Little, was informed of this tragic mistake on the day of his mother’s funeral. The manager at McCall’s told him that they would have a closed casket because his mother got cremated. He was told the mistake was made because “the other lady looked like your mother.” Annie Pearl Little was to be buried with her husband, a Korean War Veteran who died in 2015 and was buried at Calverton National Cemetery, but that was no longer a possibility. The Little family does not believe in cremation so cremation of Mrs. Little’s remains was never an option. Since learning of the cremation, Mr. Little has experienced bad dreams about his mother being burned up and has visited a therapist multiple times.
Mr. Little plans to sue McCall’s Bronxwood Funeral Home for breaching his right of sepulcher. New York courts have found that the right of sepulcher is the legal right of the surviving next of kin to find solace in comfort in the ritual of burial. In Melfi v. Mount Sinai Hospital the New York appellate court found that for a right of sepulcher claim to accrue there must be interference with the next of kin’s immediate possession of the decedent’s body and the interference has caused mental anguish. While Mr. Little’s claim appears to meet this standard, the McDonald family may not because they ultimately were able to cremate Ms. McDonald’s body as they intended. It is unclear whether McCall’s faces any disciplinary action from the New York agencies that regulate the funeral industry.