By Michael Wilson, nytimes.com
Annie Pearl Little, 82, died on Christmas Day. On the day of her funeral at McCall’s Bronxwood Funeral Home in the Bronx, the manager there called her only son, Donald Little.
“You need to come in early,” Mr. Little said he was told by the manager, Patricia Myers.
He did as instructed, and he said Ms. Myers informed him: “You’re going to have to have a closed casket. We cremated the wrong body. Your mother got cremated.”
“She said, ‘The other lady looked like your mother,’” Mr. Little said.
On Dec. 29, a funeral was held for the other woman, Val-Jean McDonald, 81, at Union Baptist Church in Harlem. Some 200 relatives and friends attended and faced the body in an open coffin. But it was not Ms. McDonald — it was Ms. Little, wearing Ms. McDonald’s clothes and jewelry in a coffin bearing Ms. McDonald’s name. The McDonald family — Ms. McDonald had eight sons — shared their story and described how they rationalized what they believed to be a change in their mother’s appearance in an article in The New York Times on Tuesday. They prayed over and eulogized the wrong woman, and then attended her cremation the next day at Woodlawn Cemetery.
The family, after being told by the funeral home of the mix-up, then held a private viewing and cremation with the proper body. But one mystery lingered: Who was the woman everyone had mistaken for Val-Jean McDonald?
The mystery was resolved when Mr. Little and his lawyer, Robert Di Gianni, contacted The Times after the article appeared.
Mr. Little said he was floored by the news that the manager had delivered. “I went outside to walk it off,” he said. But he did not walk long; the viewing was only an hour away, he said.
He arranged photos of his mother on the closed, and presumably empty, coffin. She lived in Co-op City in the Bronx. Her husband was a Korean War veteran who died in 2015 and was buried at Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island. Ms. Little was to be buried with him. Cremation was never an option, he said.
“My family doesn’t believe in cremation,” Mr. Little said.
He greeted mourners — about 50 arrived, he said — with the bad news. “We’re going to have to have a closed casket because they cremated the wrong body,” he told them. “One of my friends said, ‘Aren’t they supposed to be labeled?’”
He later learned his mother had had a large send-off at Union Baptist. He said whatever comfort that news might have brought him — his mother had been a devout Baptist, he said — was outweighed by his grief at having missed the ceremony.
“She’s dressed up and paraded around in other people’s clothes and jewelry,” he said. “People kissing her and taking pictures. It’s heartbreaking I couldn’t do that.”
McCall’s Bronxwood Funeral Home admitted its mistake in a letter that Mr. Little showed a reporter. “Please accept my apologies for mistakenly having your mother Annie Little cremated,” the letter said. It asked for Mr. Little’s signature, which was to convey consent for McCall’s to amend documents to show that Ms. Little had been cremated. Mr. Little said he refused to sign.
McCall’s said through a spokesman that the remains would stay in the funeral home’s custody until Mr. Little contacted McCall’s and authorized their transfer to Calverton for burial.
“We offered to have a limousine take him to Calverton Cemetery with his mother’s remains, but as of today, Mr. Little has been unable to return to McCall’s to approve these details,” the spokesman, George Arzt, said.
Mr. Little said he could not sleep. “I’ve been having bad dreams about her being burned up,” he said. He said he had visited a therapist several times since February.
His lawyer, Mr. Di Gianni, said Mr. Little intended to sue McCall’s for breaching his right of sepulcher, or his right to choose cremation or burial for his mother.
The McDonald family took several pictures of the woman they believed was their mother in the coffin on Dec. 29, and when Mr. Little said on Wednesday that he wanted to see one, they allowed a reporter to give him one.
Mr. Little took a long look at the woman in the coffin with the wrong name on the side. “That’s my mother,” he said. “That’s my mother.”