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Lawsuit Filed in Dispute Over Burial

Parents say they were distressed when infant was buried before they arrived. Official says family's instructions were followed.

June 24, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

More than six months have passed, but the pain remains, says Carmen Suaste.

The death of her son, who was born prematurely after 5 1/2 months of gestation, was difficult enough to endure, but she and the baby's father say they suffered additional heartache when they arrived for the child's burial services to discover that he had already been buried.

The father, Fernando Lopez, 33, said he bought a plot at Santa Ana Cemetery and was told that the burial would be at 1 p.m. on Dec. 6.

But when he, Suaste and family and friends arrived, they learned that the child had been buried at 11 a.m.

"When we arrived at the cemetery we had a few friends and a priest," said Suaste, 33, of Santa Ana. "But one of the men in the office said, 'I'm sorry. We buried him earlier.' I went crazy. I said, 'No, no, no!' "

In a lawsuit filed in Superior Court last week, the couple allege that Orange County Cemetery District and New Options Funeral Service breached a contract and caused intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The suit seeks unspecified damages. The case is unusual because the couple sought help from the Mexican consul's office in Santa Ana to exhume the body.

"When they said he had been buried, I didn't get a chance to say goodbye," Suaste said. "I didn't know if he was in the casket. I needed proof. I needed to see him. They could have sold his organs for all I know. I just couldn't let him go without seeing him for one last time."

Several days after the burial, the body was exhumed and Suaste verified that it was her son, whom they had named Angel Lopez. They then held a burial service, for which the couple were billed.

Angus McAulay, owner of New Options, denies the allegations. He said the Placentia mortuary followed funeral instructions given by the family, which were completed at minimal cost.

"This is so unfortunate that it grieves me. We bent over backward to help them," McAulay said.

The mortuary's Web site describes McAulay as a third-generation funeral director with 37 years in the industry.

The mortuary has found a way to cut costs, McAulay said, and was able to offer the couple discounted mortuary services, including a casket, for $107. Burial was an additional $220.

According to the family's attorney, Federico Castelan Sayre, the mortuary's position is that the 1 p.m. burial time stated on the contract was an estimate, with no guarantee of the exact time.

"It's unfortunate that because the cost for services were so cheap that the mortuary believes they don't have to be treated with a matter of courtesy," Sayre said.

The couple, who have kept their funeral documents in a file, maintain that if there were special circumstances with the burial time, they did not know of them and nothing was noted on copies of the contracts they showed to a reporter.

Either way, it's been an emotional roller coaster. Suaste, who sells dolls and odds and ends at a swap meet, has four other children. The boy was her second child with Lopez.

"We named him Angel," Suaste said, pointing to porcelain angels decorating a wall.

"I love angels. I wanted them to protect him."

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