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Published: Thursday, 8/15/2002

Hospital, 2 mortuaries faulted in cremation

VAN WERT, Ohio - Donald Stier's family was shaken and upset when the casket was opened just before his viewing at an Indiana funeral home.

But it wasn't his death that was so shocking. It was the fact that the man in the casket wasn't Donald Stier. By the time the mix-up was straightened out, Mr. Stier's body had been accidentally cremated in Van Wert, a lawsuit filed in Fort Wayne, Ind. contends.

The family accuses Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne of sending Mr. Stier's body to Alspach-Gearhart Funeral Home in Van Wert, Ohio on March 4 instead of to the D.O. McComb & Sons Funeral Home in Fort Wayne.

The family realized the mistake March 5 - two days after Mr. Stier died - when they went to the funeral home for a private viewing.

“They were extremely shook up and shocked and upset ... because they saw the wrong body for the first time in the funeral home right before the showing,” said the Stier family attorney John P. Bullman, of Fort Wayne.

The man in the casket was William Ruskaup, 82, who also died at Lutheran Hospital and was supposed to be cremated at the Van Wert funeral home March 6.

But the suit contends that the funeral home cremated Mr. Stier, 76, instead, without verifying his identity. That was March 6, a day after the Stier family realized the mistake.

“By the time they were able to determine who got the body, the cremation had already taken place,” Mr. Bullman said. The Stiers, who are Catholic, do not believe in cremation as it goes against Catholic teachings, he said. The suit says the family suffered emotional distress because they could not view and bury Mr. Stier's body.

According to the lawsuit, the Fort Wayne funeral home had a photo of Mr. Stier but still did not recognize he was not the man in the casket.

The lawsuit was filed Friday by Mr. Stier's widow, Gaynell, and his daughters, Marsha Blaugh and Sharon Myers. The suit named Lutheran Hospital and the two funeral homes as defendants.

The suit asks for a jury trial and seeks unspecified damages to “punish” the defendants and deter them from doing it again. Officials from the hospital and funeral homes, as well as the family of Mr. Stier, declined to comment on the suit.

Ohio laws are strict regarding cremation, said Jordan Urbanski, owner and director of Urbanski Funeral Home in Toledo. Before cremating a body, the funeral home must receive consent from the family. That means a family member must identify the body at the funeral home or sign a state cremation form stating they refused to view the body, Mr. Urbanski said.

Mr. Urbanski said he's never heard of someone's body being mistakenly cremated in Toledo or the surrounding area. “Ohio's laws are written to help avoid [mix-ups] as long as people follow the law,” Mr. Urbanski said.

Mr. Bullman said Mrs. Spier and her two daughters are “doing as well as can be expected.” They held a memorial service for Mr. Spier March 6 and later received his cremated remains which they had buried, Mr. Bullman said.

The suit accuses the hospital of misidentifying the bodies and falsely delivering them to the wrong funeral homes. The Van Wert funeral home failed to ensure it was cremating Mr. Ruskaup's body, and the Fort Wayne funeral home failed to prevent the cremation by determining it had the wrong body and notifying the hospital, the lawsuit states.



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