George Thiele’s last wish was to be buried in Fairmount Memorial Park next to his wife of more than 45 years.
Instead, the 76-year-old man was cremated last week and another man was placed in his casket, family members said.
“Definitely a mistake has been made, but who made it, we have no idea,” said Richard Thiele, the dead man’s brother.
The family doesn’t want to point fingers, and the funeral home that handled the remains said it isn’t at fault. But the Thiele family has hired a lawyer to investigate the mistake.
George Thiele, who had lived in the Spokane area most of his life, died Dec. 9 at Valley Hospital and Medical Center after an aneurysm had burst in his abdomen.
Hazen & Jaeger Funeral Home handled the arrangements. His funeral was set for 1:30 p.m. Friday.
But it was canceled after Thiele’s sister and one of his two daughters checked his body at the funeral home Thursday. They found another man dressed in Thiele’s suit, lying in his casket, said Jack Urquhart, a lawyer hired Monday by the family.
“Needless to say, the two who were viewing the remains were shocked, upset that the person in the casket was wearing his clothes,” Urquhart said. “They said, ‘That’s not George Thiele.”’
Funeral home attendants demanded proof that the body was not Thiele’s, Urquhart said. Tags on the body’s ankle and the casket bore Thiele’s name.
Family members examined the body for identifying marks and retrieved photographs, a driver’s license and medical records to prove it was the wrong man, Urquhart said. A family dentist finally took dental records to the funeral home, which confirmed the body wasn’t Thiele’s.
On Friday morning, Thiele’s body still hadn’t been found. The family canceled the funeral and called friends to tell them. Still, many showed up, Urquhart said.
About 1 p.m. Friday, the family was told that Thiele had been cremated, Urquhart said. An urn of ashes eventually was given to the family.
Hazen & Jaeger isn’t responsible for any errors, general manager Dwayne Harmon said in a prepared statement. Earlier Tuesday, Harmon acknowledged in an interview that someone made a mistake.
Other people besides funeral home workers handled the body, he said.
“We’re all very upset that this happened,” Harmon said. “It’s unfortunate that this happened. Unfortunately, we’re all human as well, and mistakes happen.”
He wouldn’t say who was dressed in Thiele’s suit.
Urquhart said he would investigate the handling of Thiele’s remains and determine whether the family has grounds for a lawsuit.
Funeral homes rarely cremate a body by mistake, said Chuck Wetmore, co-owner of the Cremation Society of Washington, which has a crematorium on East Sprague.
“I’ve been in the business 25 years,” Wetmore said. “I’ve heard of maybe half-a-dozen of these cases.”
Bodies slated for cremation are double- and triple-checked, he said.
Thiele’s family members probably wouldn’t have signed such a form, because of his wishes.Thiele, who worked for Washing ton Water Power Co. for 44 years, also was a pilot. He flew his first airplane at Felts Field, two days before his 21st birthday. He flew supplies in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and made about 175 round trips in a two-engine airplane over the Himalayas.
After the war, Thiele flew air ambulance, charter flights and fire patrol over North Idaho forests.
“He definitely didn’t want to be cremated,” said Richard Thiele. “Because if you’re flying an airplane, the worst fear you’ve got is fire. You don’t want any part of that.”