St. Thomas family shocked to see wrong body in aunt's clothing, casket at funeral home viewing
Published: September 26, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - When the family of Lyra Elvira Sewer Collazo gathered to say their good-byes to the 95-year-old at Davis Funeral Home, her niece bent over the open casket and burst into tears.
She was not crying from grief, though, but from the shock of seeing another woman in the dress and jewelry she had picked out for her aunt to be buried in.
Apparently, Collazo's body was switched with the body of another woman, St. John resident Erin Parsons, a 79-year-old who also died the same day, Aug. 29, according to another of Collazo's nieces, Lorna Johnson.
"It's just so unbelievable to my family. It's just unreal what happened to my aunt," Johnson said. "The clothes that we brought for my aunt to be buried in was put on another body. My niece went over to the casket and when she went to hug my aunt and when she bent over she said, 'Oh my goodness, this ain't be my aunt.' "
After discovering the error during a viewing service Sept. 19, the family had an emergency meeting in the upstairs office of Davis Funeral Home with Philip Davis, the owner of the funeral home, and Joycelyn Connor, the general manager. That was when they learned that the bodies were switched, Johnson said.
Johnson said that Davis and Connor allowed another one of Collazo's nieces to go down into the cooler and search among the bodies for her aunt.
She was not there.
"She came back up, she was crying, saying, 'Auntie's not here,' " Johnson said.
Since then, the 40 to 50 people, many of whom traveled from the states and who had planned on attending a funeral for their beloved relative, have been robbed of that ceremonial closure, family members said. Collazo's funeral, scheduled for Friday, was cancelled, and Connor has said that the funeral home has to arrange to have Collazo's body exhumed in Nevis, where it may have been mistakenly sent and interred in the burial plot intended for Parsons.
Collazo's nephew, Van Cito Sewer, said Collazo never had any children of her own, but she treated her nieces, nephews and extended relatives like they were her own children. The family is extremely distraught that they were never able to pay their proper respects.
Parsons' husband, Vernon Parsons, declined to comment about the mix-up, saying that legal action may be pending.
The Collazo family got two conflicting stories from Davis' management about how the Parsons family had not alerted the funeral home to the switch, according to Johnson.
At first, Connor said that the Parsons family had opted for a closed casket service. At some point during meetings that resumed Friday and Saturday mornings, the story changed, and the family was told that the Parsons family had had two separate viewings and a funeral some time between Sept. 7 and Sept. 14 and did not say that anything was amiss, Johnson said.
Johnson said the two women do not resemble each other.
Collazo had short gray hair, she said, while Parsons had long black hair. Johnson said she was offended by Connor's demeanor when delivering the news that her aunt may be in Nevis.
"It was like pulling teeth to get them to tell who the person in the coffin was," Johnson said of the initial emergency meeting Thursday night.
"When we got there the next morning, they told us my aunt was in Nevis and that she was already buried. The woman is talking to us like my aunt is on vacation somewhere. She was so casual," Johnson said.
Davis is saying nothing about how the two bodies were mixed up. Nor is it clear how or when the situation will be resolved.
"We are not making any comments at this time," Davis said. "We are dealing with the families, and that is all I can say."
According to Johnson, Collazo died at the office of Dr. Linda Callwood on Aug. 29. She had not been eating and was sleeping excessively, so she was taken in for an examination and passed away, according to the family.
Callwood said that she had called 911 to get the medical examiner to come and make a death determination. After waiting an hour and a half, she called again.
Dispatchers told her the medical examiner was too busy to come out himself, Callwood said.
The doctor said she asked whether she could write a death certificate and whether the body could be sent directly to the funeral home. Dispatchers gave her the authorization from the medical examiner, and she did so, Callwood said. Then a Davis' employee came and picked up the body, she said.
Callwood said that she did not observe anything amiss in the handling of the body and that she did not know whether the body was properly tagged. She said that this was the first time she ever had to handle a death in the office, so she is not an expert on the procedures.
Attorney General Vincent Frazer said that medical doctors can write death certificates, but that it is highly irregular when a person passes away outside of a hospital not to have the body go to the morgue for an official determination from the medical examiner.
Johnson said Davis Funeral Home had offered to pay for some of the travel expenses for out-of-town relatives, but the whereabouts of her aunt's body is of more concern.
"The funeral was cancelled. They asked us if we wanted to have a memorial service, we said no, we don't want to have a memorial service. The whole situation is way, way out to me," Johnson said. "The bottom line is until they can produce a body, we don't know that the body in Nevis is my aunt just because they are telling us that."
- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email email@example.com.