By James Bikales
After an open-coffin funeral at their mother’s church, the children of Kyung Ja Kim gathered around a cemetery to see her laid to rest.
As the casket was lowered into the grave, the funeral director suddenly interjected, ordering the cemetery employees to lift it back out and return it to the hearse.
There had been a mix-up, the director explained. The funeral home had placed the body of another woman with the same last name into their mother's casket, complete with their mother's clothes and dentures, the family said in a $50-million (about R840m) lawsuit filed against the funeral home this week.
Kim's three children and son-in-law allege in the suit that Central Funeral Home of New Jersey, which operates the Blackley Funeral Home in Ridgefield, New Jersey, was negligent and careless in putting the wrong body into their mother's casket last November, exacerbating their grief and emotional distress.
Kummi Kim, one of her daughters, fainted on the spot when the casket was pulled out of the ground, said Michael Maggiano, the family's attorney.
"Mrs Kim was a very, very religious woman," Maggiano said. "She wanted her passing to be celebrated at the Promise Church in Leonia, New Jersey, and that didn't happen - in the casket was another woman who was represented by the funeral home to be Mother."
Representatives at the Blackley and Central funeral homes told The Washington Post on Wednesday morning that they would pass on requests for comment to management, but there was no response by mid afternoon. No attorney information for the companies is listed in court records.
When Kyung Ja Kim, 93, died at her daughter Kummi's home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Kummi Kim called the funeral home in nearby Ridgefield - where 30% of the population is of Korean descent, according to the Census Bureau - hoping to arrange a funeral and burial in accordance with Korean tradition, according to the lawsuit.
Funeral director Haemin Gina Chong arranged for the body to be picked up and met with the family the following day to discuss how Kim would be dressed and presented for the open-casket funeral.
But when the casket arrived for the funeral two days later at Promise Church in Leonia - where Kim had long attended and asked for her funeral to be held - it contained the body of Whaja Kim, another woman who was being held at the funeral home, but was not related to the family, the lawsuit says.
When Kummi Kim was given the chance to view her mother's body shortly before the funeral, she told Chong that the body did not appear to be her mother's, according to the suit.
Chong responded with a "very clear expression of denial and dismay," leading Kim to rationalize that the embalming and make-up process must have altered the body's appearance.
"They made her up and led the family to believe, 'This is Mother, she looks a little different while she's passed,'" Maggiano said. "So the family thought, 'Well, okay, we're not sure this is Mom, but you're the experts, so we'll trust you.'"
The funeral went on as planned, and the casket was loaded into a hearse to travel to a cemetery in Valhalla.
The family later learned that during the funeral, Chong had called and texted Whaja Kim's daughter about her mother's "identifying features," and the daughter sent back several photos, the suit said.
As the procession travelled to the cemetery, Chong called Kummi Kim and told her that if she was not sure the body was her mother's, they should "turn all the cars around," without explaining further, according to the suit. Confused, Kim told Chong that they should proceed with the burial.
Thirty minutes into the gravesite service, Chong pulled up a photo on her phone of a body that was at the funeral home and showed it to Kim. Kim said it was her mother's.
Without explanation, Chong directed the cemetery workers to remove the casket from the grave "as family members looked on in astonishment," the lawsuit said. Chong later met with the family and informed them that Whaja Kim's body had been dressed in their mother's clothing, then presented at the funeral and for the burial.
Chong later acknowledged to the family that the funeral home had placed their mother's dentures under a pillow beneath Whaja Kim's body, despite Whaja Kim having a full set of teeth, according to the suit.
Chong arranged an urgent funeral with the correct body the next day, but it could not be held at their mother's church because it was being used for Sunday services. Several family members had already left because they could not change their travel plans, the suit said.
The mistake breached the family's contract with the funeral home and failed to respect Korean burial tradition and their mother's wishes of a funeral at her home church, the family said in the suit.
They also said the funeral home had several opportunities to catch the error and instead disregarded "clear evidence of confusion of the body" until the wrong body was already in their mother's grave.
Chong told the family that the two employees who picked up Kim's body did not place an identifying tag on her, which goes against best practice in the industry, Maggiano said. The funeral home offered to refund the $9,000 that the family had paid in fees, but later cashed the check anyway, according to an amended complaint filed Wednesday.
"My mother lived a long life, and she wanted her funeral to be a celebration," Kummi Kim, one of her daughters, said at a news conference Monday, according to NJ Advance Media. "Her last wish was that everything would be at the church, the proper way. So I feel very guilty that we couldn't give her final wish."
Maggiano said the Kim family was not looking for financial gain and would donate any money they receive from the lawsuit to two churches that were important to their mother.
"They do not want a dollar from this," Maggiano said. "They're doing it for their mother, and that's what Mother would have wanted."