The Crusader Newspaper Group

After Funeral and Cremation, a Shock: The Woman in the Coffin Wasn’t Mom

By Michael Wilson,

After a long battle with cancer, Val-Jean McDonald, mother of eight sons, with more than 20 grandchildren, almost as many great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren, succumbed on Dec. 18 at the age of 81.

Her funeral, 11 days later, attracted scores of mourners to Union Baptist Church in Harlem: her sons, from Manhattan, New Jersey, Georgia, Texas and Australia; other relatives and friends; and people who had never met her but knew her children.

They all filed past the open coffin, seeing familiar remnants of Ms. McDonald’s life: a favorite pink blouse and white suit, and her finest jewelry.

“Why did they cut off all her hair?” a son, Errol McDonald, 57, remembers thinking. “Maybe it’s the cancer.” He bent and kissed her.

But sometimes children see what adults cannot. Adults rationalize. Children call it like it is.

“My 10-year-old son said, ‘Daddy, that’s not Grandma,’” recalled Mr. McDonald, a school maintenance worker in Manhattan. “I said, ‘Yes, that’s what happens,’” he told the boy, explaining that people can look different in death.

The next day, the family attended Ms. McDonald’s cremation at Woodlawn Cemetery.

Six days passed. Then, a manager from McCall’s Bronxwood Funeral Home in the Bronx, which had handled the arrangements, called another of Ms. McDonald’s sons, the Rev. Richard McDonald, with shattering news, he said.

“She says, ‘That body was not your mother,’” Richard McDonald said in an interview. “‘Your mother is still here.’”

A viewing of what family members assumed was the body of Val-Jean McDonald at Union Baptist Church in December. Photo credit Richard McDonald
A viewing of what family members assumed was the body of Val-Jean McDonald at Union Baptist Church in December. Photo credit Richard McDonald

The woman who had been in that coffin, seen by all those people, kissed by her sons, was not Val-Jean McDonald at all.

The revelation left Ms. McDonald’s family angry and incredulous, and asking themselves hard questions: How could so many people not have recognized that the woman in the coffin was not Ms. McDonald? How could her sons have convinced themselves, to a man, that this stranger was their mother?

And how could a funeral home make such a mistake?

A spokesman for McCall’s, George Arzt, declined to discuss specifics of the episode. “We have spoken to the families affected and acknowledged our deepest sorrows,” he said.

The state’s Division of Cemeteries is investigating the matter, a spokesman said. The state’s Bureau of Funeral Directing is conducting a review, a spokeswoman said.

Several of the McDonald brothers described a sort of collective acceptance that while the woman had not looked exactly like their mother, it was plausible that the combination of her time at the hospital on a respirator and the embalming process had altered her appearance. In short, they had all seen what they wanted to see — their mother.

“It’s shameful,” Richard McDonald said.

The family first viewed the body on the day of the funeral, in the coffin they had ordered, with their mother’s name stitched into the fabric along the side. She was dressed in the pink blouse and the suit, and earrings and a wristwatch. The sons looked at the dead woman’s face.

“We all did a double-take,” Mr. McDonald, 55, pastor of the Love of Jesus Family Church in Jersey City, said. “We thought something happened, and this is the best they could do.”

A third son, Darryl McDonald, 51, had traveled to the funeral from Melbourne, Australia, where he is a basketball coach. “I said, ‘Rich, that doesn’t look like Mom,’” he recalled. “He told me she’d been in the hospital for a long time. She had tubes and all, and her face could have changed. I was like, ‘O.K.’”

No other theory seemed plausible. “You’re in a funeral parlor,” Darryl said. “There is just no way that’s not my mother. You would never think that.”

Adults would not, anyway. Another of Ms. McDonald’s granddaughters said that day that the woman did not look like her, and like Errol McDonald’s son, she had been corrected.

“A child would speak on it,” said Leroy McDonald, 60, a fourth son. “An adult says, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ Someone says, ‘That’s not your mom,’ in a funeral home? That would be appalling.”

He thought back to when he first saw the body. “When you look from a distance, it looks like my mom,” he said. “You know what threw me off? The lady had my mother’s clothes on.”

More than 100 people attended the visitation hour before the funeral that evening, and more than that went to the ceremony, Richard McDonald, who officiated, said. He said the first floor of the church, which holds about 200 people, was filled, with others sitting upstairs. Several mourners, himself among them, eulogized the woman in the coffin, recalling Ms. McDonald’s years of service with the United States Postal Service and her raising eight boys in a crowded Harlem apartment.

The next day, Ms. McDonald’s children accompanied the coffin to Woodlawn, where it was received at the crematory. Later, Richard McDonald worried that he had forgotten to say his customary prayer — “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Then, on Jan. 5, the shattering call came. A manager at McCall’s contacted Mr. McDonald to tell him of the mistake.

Photographs were taken of Ms. McDonald, still at the funeral home, and emailed to him.

“That’s my mom,” he replied. He called his brother Darryl, who was to fly back to Australia later that day.

“He said, ‘Are you sitting down?’” Darryl recalled. “‘Remember when you said it wasn’t Mom?’”

Darryl McDonald drove to McCall’s to confirm the news. His mother was naked on a metal table under a sheet, he said.

“The lady was apologizing,” he said, referring to the funeral home manager. “She only realized what she had done when she was looking for the other lady.”

The brothers scheduled another cremation at Woodlawn on Jan. 9. There was a brief viewing, with Ms. McDonald in a white gown in a coffin similar to the first. Four members of her family saw her that day.

Side-by-side photographs of the two women in their coffins suggest they were roughly the same age and size, with similar dark complexions. The McDonald family did not learn the names of the other woman or her family.

Ms. McDonald was cremated at Woodlawn. Richard McDonald made sure to say the prayer that time: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

The owner of McCall’s, James H. Alston, met with a reporter last Tuesday. “I don’t have any comments to make with respect to any of this,” he said. He looked at photographs of the two women and said, “Looks like the same woman to me,” but declined to identify the one who had been cremated first.

“We have a stellar record,” Mr. Alston said, adding that McCall’s has been in business for 50 years. “We have a stellar reputation in this community. We’re known for our care, compassion, professionalism, the quality of our work.”

Mr. Arzt, the funeral home’s spokesman in the matter, said, “All aspects of the situation were shared with the appropriate government regulating agencies, and therefore we cannot say anything further.”

The director of Woodlawn Cemetery, David Ison, declined to comment. A spokesman for the Division of Cemeteries said there was no indication that the crematory violated any regulation; crematories cannot open coffins without good cause under state law, relying on funeral directors to provide the identity of the remains.

The McDonald family has, until now, told few people about what happened. Leroy McDonald said the people he had told had the same reply: “I knew it!”

Errol McDonald has heard similar responses, with friends and relatives telling him they thought something was wrong, but, as they put it, “I didn’t want to say anything.”
Leroy McDonald claimed Ms. McDonald’s remains, leaving McCall’s with a parting shot that day: “I said, ‘You sure this is my mother now?’”


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