Funeral home gives mourning family wrong body, realizes error days later, relatives say

NEW YORK — It wasn't mom.

In a nightmarish mistake, a family held a funeral and cremation for their beloved matriarch, an 81-year-old woman who had lost her long battle with cancer. But the family found out six days later that they actually hadn't said goodbye to her at all — the body in the coffin belonged to a different woman.

The mother, Val-Jean McDonald, died December 18th, according to the New York Times, which first reported the story.

Her body was handled by McCall's Bronxwood Funeral Home in the Bronx. Her eight sons, more than 20 grandchildren, dozens of other relatives and friends attended her funeral 11 days later in Harlem. During the service, a few people thought McDonald looked different than they remembered her.

“Why did they cut off all her hair?” son Errol McDonald told the Times. "Maybe it's the cancer."

Errol McDonald wasn't the only family member who thought she didn't look like her normal self. His 10-year-old son bluntly said: "Daddy, that's not Grandma."

But people concluded, perhaps uneasily, that she looked different because of the cancer and hospitalizations.  Val-Jean McDonald was cremated the next day at Woodlawn Cemetery.

On January 9th, six days after McDonald was cremated, the funeral home called one of the sons and said there had made a mistake — the woman in the coffin, who hundreds of people kissed and mourned for two days, was not their mother, the Times reported.

A spokesman for McCall's, which has been in business for 50 years, declined to comment to the Times about the specifics of the case.

“All aspects of the situation were shared with the appropriate government regulating agencies, and therefore we cannot say anything further,” the spokesman, George Arzt, told The Times.

James Alston, McCall's owner, also did not comment on the incident to the Times, but defended his business.

“We have a stellar reputation in this community. We’re known for our care, compassion, professionalism, the quality of our work,” Alston told the Times.

Another son, Richard McDonald called the mixup "shameful" and said when he first saw the body he did do a double take, but just thought "something happened, and this is the best they could do."

The McDonald family cremated their real mother's body on January 9th after a brief viewing. The Times reported that open-coffin photographs of both women showed they had certain similarities, including age, complexion and size.