Five decades ago, a mortuary in Costa Mesa mistakenly buried a newborn child in the wrong plot. It was a mix-up that went unnoticed for years until the baby's terminally ill mother began making her estate plans.
The mother, Sandra Espejo, has been fighting myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of cancer, for the past three years. She says her prognosis is terminal.
"I'm a fighter, yeah, and I'm stubborn," she said.
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Espejo is preparing her daughter and caregiver, Tracy Paulsen, for the inevitable. And the family is working to get all of Espejo's affairs in order, including her wish to be buried next to her son, Brian.
"Her entire life she's wanted to be buried with Brian," Paulsen said.
Brian died moments after birth 50 years ago. The family thought Brian was buried in the family's plot in Harbor Lawn-Mt. Olive Memorial Park & Mortuary in Costa Mesa. When she began planning her own funeral, she discovered the mortuary's mistake.
"This has brought it all back again," Paulsen said.
Fixing this mistake would mean Brian's body would need to be exhumed and reburied.
"It's against my beliefs. You don't disturb the dead," Paulsen said. "I wouldn't do that to my worst enemy.
The ethical dilemma is obvious, but legally there are few options in a situation like this. The NBC4 I-Team and the Los Angeles Better Business Bureau's Steve McFarland posed the question to several mortuaries.
"Most of them said that we will exhume that person and put them in the correct plot," McFarland said.
The reason for this is funeral plots are real property. The plot Brian is buried in is owned by another family.
Espejo did not want her son's body to be disinterred. She contacted the NBC4 I-Team to ask the mortuary if they could switch the two families' plots. Brian is the only person buried on either property.
"Why would we rebury Brian if they don't care?" Paulsen said.
The compromise was a success. After a little patience, the mortuary located and convinced the other family to exchange plots - which means Brian's body would not need to be exhumed. This is called a "quick trade" in property terms. Espejo calls it a "miracle."
"Like a weight taken off of my shoulders," she said.
Brian can rest in peace. Espejo will eventually be alongside him.
"I could pass in peace and be there with him," she said.
Espejo's case is unlike any consumer story the NBC4 I-Team has taken on, and it brings to light a few things: when you estate plan and pre-purchase funeral plots, make sure you keep that paperwork designating everything you purchased. It could be years before you use it. Your funeral plot is real property, in the sense that you purchased internment rights at a specific location. And if you do learn that a loved-one was mistakenly buried in the wrong plot, it can be hard to avoid an exhumation because it's not just the mortuary, but another family that could be involved to reach a resolution.