NM family sues after funeral home sends grandmother’s brain in bag of personal effects

By Tim Korte, AP
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

NM family sues funeral home over brain in bag

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A New Mexico family is suing after making a gruesome discovery — a bag of personal effects given to them after their mother’s death contained her brain.

Funeral homes in New Mexico and Utah, where the woman died, are blaming each other for the mistake.

“This is just a sad tragedy,” plaintiffs attorney Richard Valle said Wednesday. “This almost feels like something you’d read about in a Stephen King book.”

The Albuquerque Journal first reported about the lawsuit, filed Monday in state District Court in Albuquerque. According to the complaint, the woman’s relatives “smelled a foul odor coming from the bag” they received from DeVargas Funeral Home and Crematory of the Espanola Valley.

The woman, identified by her initials M.F.R., died in a car accident in Utah on Sept. 28.

Funeral home owner Johnny DeVargas didn’t immediately return telephone messages seeking comment but denied any fault and told the newspaper a Utah funeral home was responsible.

“All I can say is DeVargas did absolutely nothing wrong,” DeVargas said. “The family was very meticulously cared for and they were very pleased with our service.”

In addition to the New Mexico funeral home, the lawsuit also names as defendants Serenicare Funeral Home in Draper, Utah, and Inman Shipping Worldwide, an Ohio-based shipping company that transported the body to northern New Mexico.

A woman who answered the telephone after business hours at Inman’s call center said nobody from the company was available to comment.

Serenicare owner Dick Johnson characterized his firm’s action as typical within the industry.

The woman’s brain went into a bag for transport to northern New Mexico, he said, because “the brain is about 75 percent water.” In this case, Johnson said the brain sustained substantial trauma from the crash. He said her personal effects were placed in a separate bag.

“Rather than try to reinsert the brain into a damaged head, it is common practice to ship it inside a bag,” he said. “If we put it back in (the head), it could have been a soggy, leaky mess.”

Johnson also said when someone has died in a violent crash, there’s usually blood “and who knows what” on clothing or other items, so his employees typically sit down with relatives of the victim and encourage them to let the funeral home discard the bag rather than accept it.

He also denied that the Utah funeral home combined the brain and personal items in a single bag.

“I think once all the discovery takes place, it will become evident there was some negligence at that end,” Johnson said. “We feel bad. We don’t know what could have been done differently, but we follow standard industry practice.”

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