The death of Mark Grimaldi’s father in 2001 was devastating.
Then he got the disturbing news that for the past 18 years his father was not interred at the cemetery that the family would visit often to pray. Instead, his remains were left on a shelf at the funeral home for almost two decades.
“It was like receiving the phone call back in 2001 that my dad had passed,” Grimaldi said during an exclusive interview with News 4 Investigates.
“It was like he died all over again, and everything floods back, all the emotions, all that pain.”
Indeed, all his father, Paul Grimaldi, wanted was to be interred with his wife, Josephine, the love of his life. The Grimaldis had Paul cremated and left the rest to the funeral home, Colonial Memorial Chapels in Lackawanna.
Somehow, Colonial Memorial Chapels never interred Paul Grimaldi’s remains. The Grimaldis still have no idea how the “mess-up” happened.
Colonial Memorial Chapels declined to comment, but in court filings they denied the allegations.
“My mom died on 2000, September, and my dad on Memorial Day of all days in 2001,” Mark Grimaldi said.
“It was overwhelming. My sister called me and it was like a cruel joke, but my dad was never there with my mom.”
For the past 18 years, Mark Grimaldi said he brought his grandchildren to the grave site to pray and touch the wall on which his father’s name was engraved.
To get answers, Mark Grimaldi, and his sister, Pauline Jensen, filed a civil suit against Colonial Memorial Chapels and the Catholic Cemeteries of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, which manages Holy Cross Cemetery.
They also want to ensure that no other family finds themselves in a similar situation because it was emotionally painful, they said.
“It’s one of the first things, afterwards, we thought, how many other loved ones are there? Did this happen to someone else? “ Mark Grimaldi said.
Yet, in response to the lawsuit, Colonial Memorial Chapels alleged that the family shares some of the responsibility, which came as a shock to Mark Grimaldi and his sister.
“They have all my information, so at any point they could have contacted me,” said Jensen.
Paul Grimaldi was a Navy veteran of World War II. He put family first.
He loved his wife, Josephine, more than anything. Two peas in a pod. They were always together.
Her death in 2000 was a crushing blow and family members noticed a change in Paul Grimaldi’s demeanor. His health also began to deteriorate after his wife died.
Jensen said when she’d visit her mother with her father, he’d hold their engagement picture.
“He just could not get over her being gone,” she said.
“Watching that and then watching this happen all over again to him, he did not deserve to be treated like that when he died.”
When Paul Grimaldi died on May, 28, 2001, the family honored both parents’ wishes.
“That was the one thing they always wanted to do was be together in life and death,” Jensen said.
“So, that’s what we did.”
Or at least it’s what they thought they had done.
For the next 18 years, the family would visit Paul and Josephine Grimaldi.
Mark Grimaldi said one memory that stands out is in the fall of 2009 when the New York Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies in six games to earn their 27th World Series championship. His father was a Yankees fan and he visited the crypt to celebrate with him.
“I just wanted to share it with him,” Mark Grimaldi said.
“I wanted to tell him, like if he was alive I would have called him, and it was hard. But we went there and we told him, we were all excited, and his youngest grandson came to tell Papa about the World Series win.”
Other times, Mark Grimaldi said he’d go alone to visit his parents to tell them the good and bad things that life threw at him.
“And all that time I was thinking Dad was with Mom,” he said.
“That was the one comfort we drew from afterwards was knowing that they’d be together again. And I always felt good when I went there that they were together, and when my sister called me and told me that they were not together, it was a horrible punch in the gut.”
Getting the terrible news
Jensen said she was at work when her husband called to let her know that someone at Colonial Chapels has been trying to reach her by phone.
She was confused about why anyone from the funeral home would call her. She didn’t know anyone there personally and her parents were buried and interred together almost two decades ago, she thought. So, she didn’t return the call that day.
She finally received the bad news on June 26, 2019.
“The next day I called the funeral home and this gentleman answered the phone and told me that my father’s remains were still at the funeral home,” she said.
“And I said, ‘what do you mean they’re still at the funeral home? He’s been with my mother, 18 years ago’.”
“I was shocked,” she said. “I thought, could this be a joke?”
Jensen said she called the cemetery to verify what she had just heard. Jensen also wanted to know how this happened because she said she wasn’t getting any answers from the funeral home.
A woman who answered the phone told her that indeed it was she who found out about the mishap when she was digitizing records.
“And I don’t think I ever would have been contacted if it wasn’t for that woman who was doing the paperwork,” Jensen said.
“Because as far as they were concerned those ashes could have sat there for another five years.”
The family never heard of such a situation before.
Their attorney, Dale Bauman, said mix-ups such as this do happen from time to time and similar lawsuits have been filed over the years he has practiced. But there are elements of this case that he believes might be unique.
“Unfortunately, there are a number of claims that involve mishandling or misdirection of remains,” Bauman said.
“New York recognizes a cause of action where anyone with custody of someone’s remains fails to immediately provide them to the next of kin, there is a claim for that. So, it does occur. I can say this is the first instance that I’ve heard that involved 18 years of someone’s remains remaining on a shelf without so much as a phone call.”
Jensen was left with the tough task of informing her brothers, a painful memory she wishes she could forget.
“It was bad,” she said. “It was like [Mark] said: calling them to tell them that my dad had passed.”
Mark Grimaldi said he didn’t believe his sister at first. This makes no sense, he thought. How?
Then the anger set in. The family realized they were going to have the funeral all over again.
In the summer of 2019, they watched as an employee carried the contained ashes up on a ladder and into the vault. They had to open the crypt and the family saw their mother’s casket, an uncomfortable sight for them.
“I mean, I had never seen that because when she died they left the casket and then you all leave,” Jensen said.
“You don’t watch them put it in there. So, it was opening up a lot of wounds.”
Mark Grimaldi said the cemetery allowed him to place a Yankees hat in the crypt with his father’s remains. He wrote on the hat, “Hi Dad, You and Mom are together now. Miss you! I’ll see you someday. I love you. Marky.”
Inside the hat he placed a photograph of his father with his four great-grandchildren.
“The day that we were at Holy Cross to put my dad with my mom, it got a little heated because my brothers and some of my nieces and nephews were just distraught,” Mark Grimaldi said.
“How could you do this to Papa?”
The lawsuit alleges that Paul Grimaldi’s remains were stored in a closet for 18 years and that the family believes the funeral home “concealed the fact that their decedent’s remains were not interred for the subsequent 18 years.”
As a result, the lawsuit alleges both the funeral home and cemetery are negligent.
Mark Grimaldi and Jensen said once their father was properly interred, they began to wonder if this has happened to other families. They cringe at the thought.
“And that’s one thing we spoke about was that we didn’t want this to happen to anybody else, to any other family to have to relive that all again,” Mark Grimaldi said.
“And again, it was such a long time. It’s like a lifetime. Eighteen years was a long time that they were separated, and we were under the understanding that my dad and mom were together.”