CBC Investigates

Family horrified after funeral home mixes up bodies, cremates wrong one

A Nova Scotia family is reeling after a funeral home mix up saw them presented with two bodies that were not their loved one — only then to learn she had been mistakenly cremated.

On the day of Sandra Bennett's funeral, her family was presented with 2 bodies. Neither was her.

The Berwick Funeral Chapel, operated by Serenity Funeral Home, is where Sandra Bennett's funeral took place. Family members say they were twice presented with the bodies of other women before being told Bennett had been mistakenly cremated. (CBC)

A Nova Scotia family is reeling after a funeral home presented them with two wrong bodies — only then to learn their loved one had been mistakenly cremated.

"It's just like a horror story," one family member told CBC News.

The chairman of the board responsible for overseeing funeral directors in Nova Scotia confirms an investigation is underway into the "mistake" last month at the Serenity Funeral Home in Berwick, located in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley.

Bennett died at age 65 on Dec. 20, 2017, after a lengthy illness. (Bennett family)

Sandra Bennett died on Dec. 20 at age 65 after a lengthy illness. Her visitation was scheduled for a week later, Dec. 27, with her funeral to follow on the same day.

But nothing went as planned, and the experience left family members angry, traumatized and wondering how there could be a mix up involving at least three bodies.

CBC News has tried repeatedly to contact the funeral home's owner, Anthony (Tony) Facey, but he has not responded. His lawyer, Bernie Conway, said he has advised his client not to comment and offered a brief statement via email.

"Rest assured, Serenity Funeral Home takes utmost pride in the services it provides and takes this matter very seriously," Conway said.

Wrong body wearing woman's clothes

Before Bennett's open-casket visitation was set to begin, family members say Bennett's widower, Gary, pointed out to funeral home staff that the body of the woman in the casket was not his wife.

After some discussion, that casket was wheeled out and another brought in. That one also did not contain his wife's body, but the deceased woman was wearing Bennett's clothes, according to family members.

After both bodies were taken away, funeral home staff returned to explain that Bennett's body had been mistakenly cremated.

Bennett's family bought a plot and gravestone at this cemetery, where her cremated remains were buried. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

Bennett's family members spoke to CBC News on the condition they not be identified, as they are concerned about the impact on potential litigation. CBC also spoke to the son of one of the deceased that Serenity confused with Bennett.

The son also did not want his name used but said just before his mother's funeral four days after Bennett's visitation, funeral home staff pulled his family aside and said his mother — who wanted to be cremated — had accidentally been embalmed and displayed as someone else.

While that family was surprised, he said his mother's final wish was ultimately honoured. It's not known why the funeral home waited four days to tell the family about the mix up.

The son expressed concern and sympathy for Bennett's family, saying repeatedly how badly he felt for them.

'Next to impossible'

Serenity is one of only a handful of privately owned funeral businesses in Nova Scotia, operating funeral homes in the communities of New Ross, Berwick, Wolfville and Coldbrook. The company's website boasts it has the only crematorium in the Annapolis Valley.

"We serve everyone as though we have loved them and known them all our lives," Serenity's website reads.

Under a list of frequently asked questions about cremation, the site also states that "all reputable cremation providers use rigorous sets of operation procedures and policies to maximize their level of service, which minimizes the risk of human errors."

It goes on to say "there are labels that are used to make sure it is next to impossible to receive the incorrect remains."

When CBC News contacted the Berwick location on Monday, the general manager said they had been advised by their lawyer not to comment. He went on to say they "can't fix it" but they are waiting for the Bennett family lawyer to contact their company lawyer.

'Very concerning'

Funeral home complaints in the province are handled by the Nova Scotia Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, which is investigating. 

The funeral home contacted the board "immediately upon discovering of this mishap," said board chairman Adam Tipert, who called the situation "definitely very concerning" and a "hot-point priority" for the board.

Tipert said, however, he was not aware of three bodies being involved. He said the funeral home told them there were "two individuals, not three."

Offering "sincere condolences" to the families involved, Tipert said it is important for the board to "find out exactly what is going on."

Some funeral homes in Nova Scotia require that a family member identify the deceased before the cremation process begins, he said, and with more and more people opting for cremation, he recommends that families make that request.

About the Author

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days, she's focused on helping consumers get the most bang for their bucks and avoid being ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca.