Tom Bell and his sisters discovered that someone else was buried in their dad’s grave after the death of their mum whose last wishes were to be buried alongside her husband Thomas Bell. But the family were left shocked while grieving their mum Hilda’s death when they received a call from the undertaker informing them that gravediggers had found a stranger’s body in the coffin where their dad should have been.
As a result, their mum is currently being held in a funeral home where she has been for the last five weeks while the family desperately try to find out where their dad is buried.
Distraught Tom, 58, from Easington, a factory worker, told The Northern Echo: “Losing our mam was devastating.
“And then to be told the grave of our dad we have spent the last 17 years visiting is not his is just unbearable. How could this happen?
“Our mam is lying in a funeral home waiting to be buried and our dad is somewhere in the cemetery in an unmarked grave.”
Grave diggers acting on behalf of the Diocese of Durham, which is responsible for the church and graveyard, have since dug up six plots in an attempt to locate Thomas Bell.
Meanwhile, the person who was buried in the wrong plot has had another man’s headstone on their grave for all this time.
As a result, it is likely that another family have also been visiting the wrong grave as a result of the mix-up.
Tom and his sisters Denise, 59, and Debra, 53, sadly lost Hilda on June 16 aged 79, from COPD.
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The family had planned to bury her at the Holy Trinity Church, Wingate, County Durham after a funeral service on July 1.
Tom said: “Seventeen years ago when dad died mum bought the plot so she could be with him when she died. Mum used to go every Friday on her way to the hairdressers to take flowers and clean the gravestone.
“When they went to dig the grave two days before the funeral the gravedigger could only get five feet down when they should apparently be able to go eight feet down for a double plot and they found someone else’s coffin in dad’s grave.”
Describing how they felt when they found out the news, Tom said: “We really could not believe what we were hearing.
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“The funeral director Andrew, who has been really helpful, rang us and said he needed to come and speak to us face to face. We’ve had a funeral service but our mum is still in a funeral home waiting to be buried and they’ve dug up six graves so far trying to find our dad but we don’t know where he is.”
It is understood that a mix-up with the headstones on two plots after Thomas’s 2005 burial and inconsistent records after an original graveyard map was lost in a fire sometime around the 1980s could be to blame.
The family have since identified an unmarked plot just two meters away where they believe their father may be buried and are awaiting legal permission from the Chancellor of the Diocese of Durham to have this dug up.
Tom added: “In 2005 on the day dad was buried there were a few burials and we were grieving so couldn’t remember exactly which plot was his and relied on the gravestone being right when we went back. We’re now hoping he may be buried just a couple of meters away.”
Rev Jane Grieve, Vicar at Holy Trinity Wingate, who held the July 1 service but was not at the church in 2005 when the graves were wrongly marked, said: “We are all acutely aware of the increasing distress for everyone with every passing day.
“It was a difficult and emotional funeral to be part of, knowing we could not go out into the churchyard straight afterwards to lay Hilda to rest. I sensed both increasing shock and grief as the service went on.
“The distressing situation we face today goes back to the late 1990s and early 2000s when Wingate churchyard was still ‘open’ and receiving regular burials.
“It’s been made more difficult to resolve by several key players from those years being no longer with us, and a break in and burning on the altar years ago of some historic church papers including an original graveyard plan.”