Family Sues Cemetery Over Lost Remains

A South Florida family alleged caretakers at Dade South Memorial Park misplaced the remains of their beloved patriarch.

Posted on Fri, Nov. 02, 2007
BY EVAN S. BENN

Read the legal complaint filed by Ondina Guerra against SCI Funeral Services of Florida, Inc., and Service Corporation International.

When the day came to bury Ondina Toledo next to her late husband Miguel in the shade of a gumbo-limbo, the arrangements were set and the trench was dug.

And then caretakers at Dade South Memorial Park sheepishly revealed what they called "a small problem."

Miguel was missing.

"They told us they opened the grave and there was nothing there -- no coffin, no remains, nothing," said the Toledos' grandson, Raciel Guerra, 36.

Now they are suing the cemetery, which says it is diligently trying to locate their loved one and put an end to the family's anguish.

Two weeks after Ondina's death at age 83, the family still can't fulfill her wish to share a single grave with her husband, a retired mechanic who died Dec. 23, 1990.

And they now realize -- to their growing outrage -- that they may have been laying roses and saying prayers atop an empty plot for 17 years.

The family spent a lot of time visiting his gravesite, daughter Ondina Guerra said in Spanish. "Birthdays, Christmas. We would bring him flowers and be with him."

The medical-office assistant from Southwest Miami-Dade said she has been in therapy since last month and can't sleep because she constantly thinks about what could have happened to her dad's remains.

A HORRIBLE TIME

"Her fear is that they took him out and threw him away somewhere, or that they sold his body and sold his coffin," Raciel Guerra said about his mom. "A lot has been going through her mind. It's been very horrible."

On Thursday, the Guerras announced they had filed a lawsuit against the cemetery's corporate parents, Texas-based Service Corporation International and SCI Funeral Services of Florida.

Cemetery officials released a statement saying they are working swiftly to find Toledo's body and resolve the lawsuit. The company took ownership of the cemetery in 1992, two years after Toledo was buried.

"We believe Mr. Toledo is buried nearby," the statement said.

But his relatives say the cemetery has been anything but aggressive in its efforts to fix the mistake.

The cemetery's director broke the news to the family the day after Ondina Toledo died on Oct. 18.

The director called it "a small problem" and said a caretaker would look into it -- after he returned from vacation, according to the family's attorney, Stewart Greenberg.

The family's lawsuit seeks money for their pain and suffering, but they said their primary concern is locating Miguel Toledo's remains.

Raciel Guerra said he was close with his grandmother and grandfather. In the 17 years after his grandfather died, Guerra remembered his grandmother talking often about wanting to be buried with her husband. Miguel Toledo had purchased the two-person plot for several thousand dollars before he died.

"That was her wish -- to be there with him when she passed on," Guerra said.

Guerra comforted his weeping mother inside their attorney's office on Thursday. Later, at the gravesite in West Kendall, Ondina Guerra stood by Greenberg as he vowed to bring closure to her ordeal.

"The most important thing is that we reunite her mother and father and make sure no other family has to go through this," Greenberg said.

Ondina Toledo is currently buried at a temporary site at Dade South. The engraved footstone marking the Toledos' plot in Section 1 has been uprooted. Three dozen pink and white roses rested on the grass there Thursday.

"We are asking them to find the remains and prove they belong to Mr. Toledo," Greenberg said. "Then, we would like to move both of them to a resting place that is not owned by SCI."

In 2001, hundreds of plaintiffs filed a class-action lawsuit against the giant cemetery corporation. They claimed bodies at two SCI-owned Jewish cemeteries in Broward and Palm Beach counties were exhumed and discarded, corpses were switched and remains desecrated.

SETTLEMENT

The company denied the allegations but agreed to settle the lawsuit. A Broward judge in 2004 approved a million settlement to be divided among the plaintiffs.

"A cemetery is supposed to provide a peaceful final resting place, but SCI has a history of failing to do that," Greenberg said. "All they gave this family was an empty hole."