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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane funeral home sued for mistakenly cremating body

Cremation urns are on display at the Aurora Casket Co. Inc., in Aurora, Ind., Monday Feb. 13, 2006. (Associated Press / Associated Press)

On Friday, March 18, 2016, Stella Merritt awoke to find her husband, Bob, dead. Four days later, she felt like she lost him again.

Merritt claims her husband’s body was mistakenly cremated, denying her and her family the chance for the open-casket funeral they desired.

“Stella was robbed of the precious ritual … of placing a white rose in Bob’s hand at the funeral service – a time-honored Merritt family tradition,” the family’s lawyers say in a suit filed against the funeral home.

Bob Merritt was 60 and died of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The couple had been married 33 years, according to the lawsuit.

The morning her husband died, Stella Merritt made arrangements with Spokane Funeral & Cremation Service to take her husband’s body.

The next day, Merritt met with the funeral director to discuss final arrangements. According to Stella, they agreed the funeral home would host Bob’s open-casket funeral and then later the body would be cremated.

When she brought Bob’s clothing to the funeral home and met with the director, however, she said something felt amiss.

“He asked for the urn and my daughter pipes up and says, ‘Well, you won’t need that until after Thursday,’ and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, right,’ ” Stella said this week in a note approved by her lawyers. “I knew by his response and the look on his face that something wasn’t right.”

Later that evening the funeral home broke the news to her in a phone call: There wouldn’t be an open-casket funeral, because Bob had already been cremated.

“I just couldn’t understand how that could happen,” Merritt said.

The Merritt family’s lawsuit alleges the funeral home “intentionally and recklessly cremated Bob’s remains days before his open-casket funeral.”

Representatives from Spokane Funeral & Cremation Service declined to comment. When reached by phone, the funeral home’s lawyer, John Barhoum, said he would not comment on current litigation.

According to the Merritt family, the funeral home admitted that it was “entirely at fault” and even offered to pay for all services it performed and provided to the Merritts.

“They told me they cremated him because the employee decided it was OK to proceed,” April Merritt, Bob’s daughter, wrote through her lawyers. “They knew we had an open-casket funeral planned since we had already signed papers and requested the loaner casket … is that not intentional?”

The lawsuit further alleges that the funeral home is liable for torturous interference with a dead body, outrage with the family, breach of oral contract and violating the Consumer Protection Act. The lawsuit lists three family members as plaintiffs: Stella Merritt, April Merritt and Kevin Merritt, the dead man’s brother.

The Merritts’ lawyers, Nicholas Kovarik and Whitny Norton, said the funeral home began to negotiate with the family and offered to pay for the service. Those discussions broke down, however.

“The owner told me to calculate my costs and ‘shoot him a number in his email’ so he could send me a check,” April Merritt wrote.

But Stella Merritt said she couldn’t just “put a number on my husband.”

“What they took away from me, I don’t think you can just put a number on that,” she wrote. “And it makes me feel like they wanted to just sweep it under the rug.”