Morgue Mixup

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011 - 10:45am

Families learn loved ones' bodies were accidentally switched after death.

Robert Mitchell's enormous family, 16 living siblings in all, gathered in Denver, Colorado from around the country for his viewing and funeral, not knowing he'd already been cremated and buried at Fort Logan National Cemetery under another man's name.

He had battled cancer after a long career on the railroad.

His family describes him as a man with a magnetic personality who could talk, and laugh, with anyone.

Mitchell spent the final moments of his life at the Denver Hospice at Lowry on November 10.

So did Perry Heath of Aurora.

Denver Hospice disputes what happened in the hours after their deaths, but what's known is this: Their bodies were switched and handled according to the instructions of the other.

Mitchell was cremated and interred at Fort Logan, beneath a marker reading Private Perry Heath.

The Mitchell family learned Friday that there would be no viewing and no traditional burial.

"A lot of them hadn't seen him in a long time, so this was going to be their closure," said Lequita Taylor, whose Taylor Funeral and Cremation Services handled the arrangements for the Mitchell family.

Taylor says the Mitchell family did not want the body cremated, a choice she says many African-American families make.

When Taylor's employees went to the third-part mortuary to retrieve Mitchell's body they found the body of a white man.

"I cried, I hollered out. I couldn't believe it," Taylor said. "He was not supposed to be cremated."

"I had to tell that wife and that daughter that their father had been cremated. And when the daughter started screaming, 'My daddy, my daddy, my daddy - they cremated my daddy.' That was so heart wrenching," Taylor said.

Fort Logan employees disinterred Mitchell from Heath's grave Tuesday.

The Heath family was told a week after they buried their father that they needed to go and identify his body.

The Heath family declined to comment on the situation.

"You have two families that have totally been devastated by all of this. I'm lost for words," Taylor said.

When the men died, two separate funeral service contractors hired by each family's funeral home came to retrieve the bodies.

They came hours apart.

Both contractors say they were directed by hospice staff to pick up a specific body and were led right to the room.

"We rely on them because they work there to show us where to go," Lenny Rodriguez, whose Metropolitan Mortuary was dispatched by Taylor to picked up Mitchell's body, said.

Rodriguez says he left with the body of a white man who, unbeknownst to him at the time, was not Mitchell.

The contractor that says it picked up Mitchell's body, SI of Commerce City, told a similar story of being directed to a specific room by hospice staff.

Denver Hospice acknowledges that, in both cases, hospice staff signed paperwork allowing each company to take possession of a body.

"They work there. I thought they knew what they were doing," Rodriguez said. "I assumed they knew who was who, which patient they were giving me."

In a written statement, Denver Hospice denies its staff made any error and says it is not responsible. Denver Hospice claims it's all the fault of the funeral service contractors who didn't check wristbands listing the patients' names.

The Taylors, who identify themselves as devout Christians, say they're praying for the Mitchell family, the Heath family, and Denver Hospice.

"Not only did this mistake happen once, but twice in one day," Lequita's husband and business partner Michael Taylor said. "This is horrific."

Denver Hospice is simultaneously blaming the funeral service companies for the mix-up inside the hospice and maintaining that both men's bodies left with the correct company and that the mix-up somehow happened after they left Denver Hospice.

Representatives of the companies, who are unaffiliated with each other and in different cities around the Denver area, both had the same reaction to that claim by Denver Hospice: They laughed out loud.

Denver Hospice issued a statement Tuesday that reads, in full:

"Two Denver Hospice patients died on the morning of November 10th. The mortuaries selected by the families were contacted following the deaths. Per usual routine, mortuaries contract with a transport service to pick up and deliver the bodies for after death disposition. At the time they were picked up, both patients were appropriately identified and were released to the transport services by The Denver Hospice staff. In addition the patients were released with armbands containing identification information, which are the armbands the patients received when they were admitted to The Denver Hospice. We believe any error with identification of these two patients occurred after they were transported from The Denver Hospice. We are deeply sympathetic with the families of these two hospice patients for the grief they have suffered as a result of the loss of their loved ones, and for any emotional distress caused by this error."

Denver Hospice later released a follow up statement reading:

"It is very important to note that during their stay at the Care Center and at the time they were picked up by the transport services, both patients were appropriately identified by The Denver Hospice wristbands. The error was not caused by The Denver Hospice or any of our employees. The mortuaries and their agents neglected to check the wrist bands on the two deceased patients, both at the time of the transfers of the two deceased and prior to the cremation of one of the patients. Furthermore, we believe the mortuary that cremated in error never offered the survivors of the deceased the opportunity to positively identify the deceased, an option that is becoming increasingly common in mortuary practices."
 

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