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Family sues mortuary over switched bodies

Before her death, grandmother told family she wanted to be interred in Nicaragua. Instead, she was buried in Whittier in another woman's clothes.

May 17, 2012|By Rick Rojas and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times
  • Attorney Eric Dubin, left, and his co-counsel Jessica Cha, right, are representing plaintiffs Alberto Pernudi, rear, and Marielena Covarrubias, center front, in a lawsuit against Rose Hills Memorial Park and Mortuaries over the switching of their mother's body with another woman's.
Attorney Eric Dubin, left, and his co-counsel Jessica Cha, right, are representing… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Mercedes Adilia Rodriguez's wishes were precise and meaningful: Her casket would be closed during her funeral, and she refused to be buried in the chilly earth of a Southern California cemetery. Instead, following tradition, she would be interred above ground in her hometown in Nicaragua.

But in the days after her death, family members say they were summoned to Rose Hills Memorial Park and Mortuaries in Whittier and told the funeral home had made a mistake. She had been confused with someone else.

In death, the family said, Rodriguez went through another woman's funeral — placed in an open casket, dressed in the woman's clothing and buried in the plot marked with that woman's name. Days later, she was exhumed.

On Wednesday, the family filed suit against Rose Hills, alleging that Rodriguez's cultural beliefs, superstitions and dying wishes were ignored.

Although the family said the mortuary refunded the funeral costs, the suit seeks a non-specific amount in damages because the family has been "forever haunted by the vision of how a complete stranger's family and friends mourned, touched, kissed and cried" over their mother's body.

A spokesperson for Rose Hills declined comment, saying employees had not seen the lawsuit.

"It was sacrilege what they did to her," said Marielena Covarrubias, Rodriguez's daughter. "They violated her wishes."

She had outlined her plans years before her death, and even recorded her wishes on video.

Her children said they saw this as a final promise to their mother, a chance after a life punctuated by hardship and grief to at last fulfill her final request.

Rodriguez had been left by her husband in Nicaragua, and immigrated to the United States as her homeland was ravaged by war. In 2001, one of her daughters was killed in an auto accident.

Her children said she was strong, and certainly a disciplinarian, but had a forgiving heart.

In many ways, they joked, she was the typical Latina grandmother, with 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren: She was called Mamita by nearly everyone, and didn't tolerate any distractions during the telenovelas she'd watch every night, even if she would nod off before the shows were over.

"All her life, all the hard punches — it didn't change who she was," Covarrubias said. "After all she went through, she had to go through this again. She wasn't even respected when she was dead."

After her daughter's death, Rodriguez's health began a slow, steady decline. She had arthritis and osteoporosis, as well as hypertension. "She faded away," said Alberto Pernudi, Rodriguez's son.

In her final days, she moved into Covarrubias' home in Whittier so that she would be surrounded by family at the end. She died Sept. 30, 2010. She had just turned 88.

Family members said they were making arrangements to get her remains to her hometown of Granada, Nicaragua, when they learned she had already been buried in Rose Hills' cemetery.

She was exhumed on a rainy, chilly night — a detail especially bothersome to her children — and Rodriguez's life was celebrated days later with a Catholic Mass at St. Hilary Church in Pico Rivera.

The morning before his mother was to be taken to Nicaragua, Pernudi went to the funeral home to check one last time. He wanted to be sure it was her.

"Is there such thing as forgiveness for a company?" Pernudi said. "I'm still struggling with that."

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