A grieving family spent 17 years visiting a grave they thought was their dad’s only to find out it belonged to someone else.
Tom Bell and his sisters discovered the shocking blunder after the death of their mum, whose final wishes were to be buried alongside her husband.
But they were left stunned when they got a call from the undertaker to tell them gravediggers had found a woman’s coffin in the grave they though was their dad’s.
Mum Hilda Bell has been at a funeral home for the past five weeks due to the error – while the family still do not know where dad Thomas is buried.
Distraught son Tom, 58, of Easington, County Durham, said: “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, who are responsible the church and graveyard, have since dug up six plots but they have still not located the dad.
Meanwhile, the woman, who was buried in the plot, has had another man’s headstone on her grave for all this time.
Tom and his sisters Denise, 59, and Debra, 53, sadly lost Hilda on June 16 aged 79, from COPD.
The family had planned to bury her at the Holy Trinity Church, Wingate, County Durham after a funeral service on July 1.
Tom, a factory worker, 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.
“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 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 couple of meters away.”
The graveyard was closed to new burials in 2011 after being declared full but close relatives and those with family plots may still be laid to rest at the site.
Andrew Radcliffe from Speckman’s funeral directors, who has been helping the grieving family, said he had never come across such a case in 20 years in the industry.
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.
“Since then funeral directors and gravediggers have used the gravedigger’s plan when engaged by families to prepare plots for burials here. This part of the process does not directly involve the vicar or the church, though we are available to consult if ever needed.
“Our hearts and prayers really are with all affected as we continue to work for a resolution.”
The family is hopeful that the latest plot to be dug up will reveal where the dad is buried and Hilda will eventually be able to be buried with her husband.