ENGLEWOOD, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A New Jersey family wants answers after discovering the wrong body in a casket that should have contained their mother, who died unexpectedly while on vacation in St. Maarten.
Judi Tymon 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.
“My husband and I were the first people to go up to the casket on the day of the wake, and we get there and I said to my husband, ‘Jim, oh my gosh, this does not look like Mom at all,'” Tymon told 1010 WINS.
“I looked up, and I was like, ‘Good God, are you kidding me?’ I was stunned,” Tymon’s sister, Lisa Kondvar, of Warwick, R.I., told The Associated Press.
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 the body of Porkka, a mother of seven, 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.
“We won’t rest until we’re sure,” Tymon said. “We know that Mom is up in heaven, and this is just her body, her earthly remains, but with all that we’ve been through, it’s just been an awful experience for our family.”
The two dead women bore no resemblance to one another and were of different frames and heights, Kondvar said. The family has hired a detective and is looking for an international attorney.
“It was awful to go up to the coffin and you’re expecting to see your mom there and to see somebody that was totally different,” Tymon said. “It’s beyond imagining.”
Kondvar said her 82-year-old father, Pete, who lives in Englewood, N.J., and couldn’t make the trip to St. Maarten, is “very angry and very bitter” after being unable to say goodbye to his wife of more than 60 years.
“It’s something that I can’t fathom,” Pete Porkka told CBS 2’s John Slattery. “That something like this could happen.”
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 a cause of death for her mother hasn’t been provided, and the death certificate issued in St. Maarten listed her as a man.
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