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Bodies swapped at funeral home leads to wrong person buried, lawsuit alleges

The lawsuit comes after a family realized late last year the person in the casket was not their loved one.

SAN ANTONIO — Two San Antonio families are suing a local funeral home after they allege their loved ones’ bodies were mistakenly swapped, leading to the burial of the wrong person.

The lawsuits, filed Monday by the families of Mary Lou Salinas and Catalina Cervantes, allege that the two women died within days of each other in November 2020 and were both taken to Mission Park South for services to be held at a later date. Due to the global pandemic, the funeral home arranged rosaries and interment for the two women several days after their death.

Cervantes’ viewing and rosary was scheduled for Nov. 24, while  Salinas’ was scheduled for Dec. 7, the lawsuit states. During Cervantes’ services, her children informed the funeral director that the body in the casket “did not look good,” leading the funeral director to quietly close the lid to the casket, the court filing states. The Cervantes family said they believed their loved one did not appear in good condition because they had not seen her in nearly a month due to the fact that she was hospitalized for 18 days and her body later embalmed and kept in storage for two weeks, the lawsuit states. The individual thought to be Cervantes was buried at the Chapel Hill graveyard. 

Nearly two weeks later, the error came to light during Salinas’ funeral services when the family realized the woman in the casket was a complete stranger and informed funeral staff, court records state. Salinas’ family, the lawsuit alleges, was informed during the services she had been mistakenly buried days earlier and the the family should continue the services with the wrong body since all family and friends were already at the funeral home.

The lawsuit states the Salinas family was approached by Dick Tips, the owner of Mission Park Funeral Homes, telling the family staff had made a mistake and that they would do “everything they could to ‘make it right.’”

Days after what was supposed to be Salinas’ funeral, the body buried in the Chapel Hill cemetery under Cervantes’ plot was exhumed and Salinas’ family identified her as their loved one, the lawsuit states. Court documents allege the two women had identification tags on their bodies. 

"It's not easy to do this,” said attorney Mark Greenwald, “But if you don't pay attention and you don't follow the rules of your common sense — most of the cases we have, the bodies are clearly identified with tags on the body that are permanently attached to the legs. And it comes down to: They don't read the tags, that someone just doesn't care.”

Greenwald and attorney Alex Katzman are representing the two families in the lawsuit, and have represented other families in similar situations before.

“A funeral cannot be fixed after the fact, and a promise to make it right after a mishap like this — that promise means absolutely nothing,” said Katzman. 

MPII, Inc., the parent company of Mission Park, released the following statement regarding the lawsuits:
“We learned yesterday that some publicity-seeking contingent fee lawyers leaked a lawsuit to the media that has yet to be served on our company. This attempt to exploit two separate families began when one family misidentified the remains of their mother. An open casket visitation and service with this family followed without incident.

Later, inconsistencies led us to reach out to the second family for a positive identification. Once it was confirmed that the first family’s identification was incorrect, we took immediate action to reunite the families with the correct remains the next day.”  
 

This is not the first time such an incident has happened at a Mission Park property. In 2015, the body of 25-year-old Julie Mott was stolen from a Mission Park funeral home. Several years later, it has yet to be found. Mott, who died after a battle with Cystic Fibrosis, was supposed to be cremated. At the time, San Antonio Police said Mott’s boyfriend was a person of interest in the disappearance of the body, though charges were never brought against him specifically for her disappearance. He was, however, charged with criminal trespass for entering the Mission Park Funeral Home twice despite being barred from the premises. 

Mott’s family sued Mission Park and was also represented by Katzman and Greenwald. During the jury trial, it was revealed that the alarm code for the buildings hadn’t been changed in 20 years and that nearly two dozen people knew the access code. The jury awarded the Mott family $8 million.

"What they're losing isn't the body or any damage to the body of the deceased,” Greenwald explained. "What they’re losing is their personal right to honor their loved ones after death."