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(Tribune News Service) — Jerald Weber was at his father’s bedside in his room at a Newcastle assisted-living center last October when the retired Boeing worker and decorated World War II veteran took his final breath 18 days shy of his 98th birthday.

Before William Weber died, court documents say, he and his son had arranged through William’s insurance coverage to lay him to rest next to his wife, Helen.

So on the day after Veterans Day last year, Jerald, his wife and other members of his father’s extended family — some of whom had traveled from other states — gathered at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent to pay their final respects to his father and celebrate his extraordinary life.

During a funeral replete with a salute of gunfire and an Air Force honor guard’s ceremonial folding of the American flag that draped his casket, William’s final wish to be buried in his dress uniform and next to his beloved wife was carried out.

Or so Jerald Weber, the couple’s only child, believed.

But about three weeks later, when he received a phone call from Curnow Funeral Home, which had overseen his father’s burial, Weber learned otherwise.

A lawsuit filed this week contends funeral home director Brian Curnow informed Weber that “the person who was buried in his father’s coffin, received military honors, and was wearing his father’s uniform was a total stranger.”

In the days following that disturbing conversation on Dec. 1, a thunderstruck Weber was forced to endure “the unimaginable horror” caused by the apparent mix-up of bodies at the Sumner-based funeral home, which still had his father’s badly decomposed body when it acknowledged its error, according to suit filed in King County Superior Court on Tuesday.

The suit contends, among other allegations, that the funeral home improperly interfered with a body, negligently inflicted emotional distress on Weber and violated laws for funeral homes under the state’s Consumer Protection Act.

Maxim Lissak, Weber’s attorney, said he wasn’t able to discuss details of the case on Thursday. Weber did not return messages left for him Thursday.

A representative for Curnow Funeral Home on Thursday asked that questions about the lawsuit be emailed to her, then responded several hours later saying she couldn’t answer them “because this matter currently is in litigation.”

Christine Anthony, a spokesperson for the Washington Department of Licensing that oversees regulation of funeral homes and cemeteries, said Thursday that the state agency has opened an investigation into the matter. Once that probe is complete, a report will be issued to the state’s Funeral and Cemetery Board, which will determine whether state law was broken and “if any disciplinary action is warranted,” she said.

“It’s very rare in the industry for this to happen,” added Anthony, who could recall just two other instances in which a funeral home mixed up bodies in her 17 years at the agency.

In one of those cases, a Longview-based funeral home was fined $12,500 and placed on probation for a year after it “mistagged” two bodies picked up on the same night, she said.

“One was supposed to be cremated and one was supposed to be buried,” Anthony said. “At the funeral of the one who was supposed to be buried, the family wanted to see their loved one one more time, and when they opened up the lid it was, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s not our person.’ So, it was very horrific.”

Much like in that case, Weber contends in his suit that he, too, has experienced “severe, lasting and horrific emotional distress.”

Served with distinction

After graduating from high school in 1941, William Weber enlisted in the U.S. Army and “went on to serve with distinction during WWII,” according to the lawsuit.

He “stayed on after the war and witnessed two atomic bomb tests in the Nevada range,” the suit states, before later transferring to the Air Force and serving in the reserves.

William Weber went on to work for Boeing for more than 20 years before retiring.

After his father died of natural causes at the Evergreen Health Hospice Care at Regency Newcastle, Jerald Weber helped a hospice nurse put a clean shirt on his dad before he notified Curnow Funeral Home, the suit says. The funeral home, which also had taken care of burial arrangements for Weber’s mother when she died in 2016, had been selected to handle William’s arrangements through his insurance provider, People’s Memorial Association.

When the funeral home’s representative came, William still had a catheter tube attached to his abdomen. The representative said “it would be removed at the funeral home facility” before taking William’s body, the suit states.

Two days after his father’s death, Weber and his wife, Jacqulyn, met with funeral home director Curnow and “instructed him of their wishes to have a dress uniform placed on William,” the suit states. They also selected a casket and paid the funeral home an amount Curnow told them was consistent with the insurance coverage, the suit states.

Weber later bought a new military uniform, rank insignia and some replicas of medals William had been awarded, and provided them to the funeral home with instructions to dress his father in them for burial.

“It was particularly important to Plaintiff Jerald Weber to make sure that his father receive full military honors, as he regarded his father as an honest, hard-working, and selfless individual,” the lawsuit says. “As a decorated War veteran, the dress uniform and ceremony represented a celebration of William’s service to the attendees as well as volunteers that perform the military ceremony.”

After the funeral, the folded flag that had adorned his father’s casket, three spent shells from the gunfire salute and a red poppy — a flower symbolizing military sacrifice — were given to Weber.

“Jerald took this flag and the other items home and placed them [in] a case with Mr. Weber’s photograph,” the suit states.

After Curnow’s call three weeks later that revealed the grim mistake, Weber made arrangements with a different funeral home, Dignity Memorial in Bellevue, “to retrieve and hold his father’s remains until a new funeral date can be arranged.”

The lawsuit doesn’t identify who was initially buried in William Weber’s grave.

Within two days of the troubling phone call, the suit states, Dignity’s representatives retrieved William Weber’s body from the Sumner funeral home. They also advised his son “it would be more prudent” to use photographs “for identification purposes rather than viewing the body in person” because William’s body was so badly decomposed.

Jerald Weber also learned more disturbing details: His father’s body was still dressed in the same clothing, and attached to the urinary catheter, as it had been the day William died nearly two months earlier, the lawsuit says.

On Dec. 7, Weber returned to Tahoma National Cemetery, this time to watch contractors exhume a casket from the plot adorned with a new headstone bearing his father’s name and the inscription: “MSGT US Air Force WWII, Korea, beloved husband, father, and grandfather.”

Then, “ Curnow Funeral Home transported the casket away,” the lawsuit says, “and the plot was covered back up.”

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.

(c)2022 The Seattle Times

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(Christopher Muncy/U.S. Air Force)

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