What was supposed to be a beautiful goodbye to their mother turned into shock and horror for the Kim family when the woman they almost buried ended up not being their mother.
The family members said they almost buried a stranger 20 years younger in their mother’s grave after the funeral home mixed up two women with the last name Kim. Kyung Ja Kim was 93 when she died on Nov. 10, 2021.
Now, Kyung Ja Kim’s family is seeking a $50 million settlement from the New Jersey funeral home, its director and mortician.
Kyung Ja Kim’s daughter, Kummi Kim, said the family was surprised when funeral home director Haemin Gina Chong opened the casket before the funeral service.
“When she opened the casket, I told them this is not my mom,” Kummi Kim said during a press conference on Tuesday. “And she didn’t say any word about it.”
Central Funeral Home of New Jersey, which is named in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to a call for comment.
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Kummi Kim said she and other family members thought that embalming technology had gotten so good that it made Kyung Ja Kim look much younger than her 93 years.
The family had provided the funeral home with traditional Korean clothes for burial and Kyung Ja Kim’s dentures. The dentures were later found under the casket pillow, and the other body had a full set of teeth, said Michael Maggiano, attorney for the family.
Family members who traveled from all over, including Korea, mourned and celebrated Kyung Ja Kim’s life at a funeral service and for her burial, as were her wishes. It was when Chong began to usher family and friends away as the casket was being lowered that the family realized something was off.
Maggiano said there is a tradition of family members throwing shovelfuls of dirt on the casket during burial, and the funeral director was trying to rush people away from the site.
According to the lawsuit, which was filed Monday in state Superior Court in Bergen County, Chong showed Kummi Kim a photo of her mother as the casket was being lowered, asking if it was her mother. When Kummi Kim replied yes, Chong directed the cemetery to lift the casket out of the grave and whisked it away to the funeral home, the suit said.
Kummi Kim said no one was even able to ask Chong questions as she “ran away” from the family. Overcome with grief and shock, Kummi Kim said, she fainted at her mother’s graveside.
When the family returned to the funeral home from the cemetery in Valhalla, New York, Chong finally admitted there was a mix-up and that another woman had been placed in Kyung Ja Kim’s coffin, the lawsuit said. Kummi Kim said the peacefulness with which her mother had died was marred and made ugly by the funeral home’s mistake.
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Chong didn’t offer an apology until the family got back to the funeral home and the next day as family members said goodbye to the right person, the family said. The family had to call the bank to put a stop on the $9,000 check to the funeral home, according to Kummi Kim. The lawsuit said Chong and mortician Bongho Ha offered the family a refund.
The family was unable to have a church service again because it was Sunday, and the immediate family members were the only ones able to say goodbye properly. Kummi Kim said family and friends had carved out one day for the funeral. She called it a “sad farewell.”
“That was not her wish,” Kummi Kim said. “Her last wish was doing everything at the church with saying goodbye in a proper way to friends and church members, but we missed it. I feel very guilty about that. We couldn’t give her the final wish.”
Kummi Kim couldn’t describe the emotions she felt as Chong ordered the casket to be brought back up.
“We were so peaceful, and we were admiring her life,” Kummi Kim said. “And then all of a sudden, it was wrong. I felt disaster at that time.”
She and her husband, Taichul Kim, had spent the last 13 years taking care of Kyung Ja Kim after she had a stroke. Taichul Kim and Kummi Kim’s brother and sister, Yoonsung Kim and Jungmi Kim Walder, are also listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Maggiano said not one family but two are the victims here. Kummi Kim said the family of Whaja Kim, the woman whose body was in her mother’s casket, was not able to hold an open casket funeral because the body had begun to decompose, and that she felt awful for them.
The only explanation Chong provided to the Kim family was that neither woman had a tag identifying her, Kummi Kim said.
Taichul Kim said the goal of the lawsuit is to prevent funeral homes from misidentifying bodies.
“They need to accurately identify bodies, and there have to be multiple steps to ensure that it is the right person,” Taichul Kim said. “We trusted the funeral home, but they violated the trust. There was a promise to us. This kind of mistake should not happen again to other families.”
Maggiano said the law recognizes that everyone has the right to burial and that was violated when the funeral home switched the bodies. He said the mix-up was a “system failure,” one that should not have happened, and that there was no common sense throughout the process at all.
The lawsuit has five charges against the defendants: Central Funeral Home of New Jersey in Ridgefield, Blackley Funeral Home and Cremation Services, funeral home director Haemin Gina Chong, and Bongho Ha, the mortician. The lawsuit charges the loss of right to burial, negligent infliction of emotional distress, intentional infliction of emotional distress, battery and breach of contract.
“‘Contract’ is a fancy word, a legal word for a broken promise,” Maggiano said. “And I think all of us have lived long enough to know that a broken promise can be terribly, terribly painful.”
The family said that they would give the potential money from the lawsuit to the two churches that were near and dear to Kyung Ja Kim’s heart.