A Hmong family was awarded more than $40,000 Tuesday in a suit charging a local cemetery with burying their matriarch in a grave that already contained someone else’s bones — a repulsive finding family members said was an affront to their religious beliefs.
The jury found Mountain View cemetery at fault for negligence and breach of contract for failing to bury Xia Yang “in a dignified manner.” But they also found Xia Yang’s family members partially responsible. The jury awarded them $40,414, including the price the family paid for the plot, instead of the $5 million they had asked for.
Jurors found only three of the 11 plaintiffs had suffered emotional distress — two of Xia Yang’s sons and one daughter-in-law — and did not find the cemetery guilty of fraud or the counts that would have qualified the family to receive punitive damages.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge M. Bruce Smith also said there was insufficient evidence of grave recycling, but the state agency responsible for overseeing cemeteries has opened a separate investigation into Mountain View’s practices.
The Yang family said they had mixed reactions about the verdict. The incident caused them a lot of suffering, and they were surprised their feelings didn’t get through to the jurors, said Vincent Yang, one of Xia Yang’s grandsons, speaking for the family.
“What they did was wrong,” said Vincent Yang. “It violated our customs, our religion.”
Cemetery officials and the attorney representing them were not immediately available for comment.
Xia Yang’s family had paid $1,914.38 for a plot at Mountain View cemetery in 2003. When they were shoveling dirt over the grave, following three days and three nights of a traditional funeral, they saw bones and two rusty casket handles in the dirt.
Eileen Deimerly, the cemetery’s lawyer, said in court her client offered to refund the price of the plot, and to fill Xia Yang’s grave with new dirt. Instead, the family sued, saying cemetery officials were disrespectful and didn’t take them seriously.
Seeing the bones already in Xia Yang’s grave during her burial made her family scatter in panic. A relative who was filming the service erased the film.
Family members said the incident was an insult to their religion. The Hmong, who arrived in the United States after helping the CIA in Laos during the Vietnam War, believe a person’s spirit can’t leave the earth if it’s burdened with any extra weight.
The family will remove rings, even prosthetic limbs or metal teeth, before burial, according to Bee Yang, a Hmong expert teaching at California State University, Fresno, who is unrelated to the family.
“We come from the ancestors’ world, and after they die on earth, the spirits travel back,” Bee Yang said. “For them to reach that place, their destiny, they’re not supposed to have anything that doesn’t belong to them, in particular metal or bone.”
Xia Yang, a respected shaman, was buried in an oversized casket imported from Laos to ensure it contained no metal, her family said.
Cemetery officials said the larger casket required a grave that was eight inches wider than usual, and encroached on neighboring burial sites. The bones the Yangs found belonged to a nearby grave, they said in court.
The Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees cemeteries, started an investigation last week into whether Mountain View recycled a grave.
“We want to see if there was a problem with this particular burial, or if there are other problems as well,” spokesman Kevin Flanagan said.
He said the cemetery was fined $2,500 — the maximum under law — for failing to find a particular grave in 2003. Cases involving the reuse of grave sites can lead to fines, warnings and even with the revocation of the cemetery’s license, Flanagan said.
Oct. 18, 2005
Juliana Barbassa, Associated Press Writer