Salimah Lee says she knew there was something wrong as she examined her mother's body before her August funeral in Amityville.
The family matriarch, 87-year-old Sadie Williams, had a mole on her chin, different shaped nose and lips, a burn mark on her arm and was 30 years older than the woman lying before her. Lee had never seen this woman before, and it certainly was not her mother, she said.
But funeral director Joseph Slinger-Hasgill insisted that her mother's body had been altered due to embalming, Lee said.
Two days later, family gathered from across the country to say goodbye to Williams at the Joseph A. Slinger-Hasgill Funeral Home and for a burial at Pinelawn Cemetery in Farmingdale. The body was placed in a plot next to Williams' late husband, Franklin.
The following day, Slinger-Hasgill acknowledged to Lee that he had buried the wrong woman and that Williams was still in a freezer at the cemetery.
On Thursday, Williams' children filed suit against the funeral home in Supreme Court in Queens, arguing that the home's "negligence" had caused them intense psychological harm and emotional distress. The suit seeks $88 million in damages.
"I am still very distraught about the situation and am continuously having nightmares," said Lee, of Queens. "The funeral home was neglectful. They mishandled my mother's body."
The funeral home declined to comment.
Williams, of Amityville, a longtime nanny for children in the community, died from complications of COVID-19 on Aug. 17.
Family members hired Slinger-Hasgill, which had conducted the service for Franklin Williams three years earlier, and preplanned their mother’s funeral so she could be buried in less than 72 hours in accordance with Muslim tradition.
Lee said she knew right away that the woman she viewed at the funeral home on Aug. 18 was not her mother. The body, she said, was later determined to be a woman in her late 50s who died alone in her home.
Despite their reservations, family traveled from Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina for the Aug. 20 funeral and burial.
Lee said she received a call from Slinger-Hasgill the following day, conceding the error, and blaming it on the fact that both women were wearing white dresses.
"This is a colossal mix-up," said the family's attorney, Phil Rizzuto of Uniondale. "When the children questioned whether or not this was their mom's body, the funeral director basically dismissed it and didn't event consider the possibility that they could be right. It just boggles my mind."
Lee said Slinger-Hasgill asked her to sign a document stating that she was the only child, which would have allowed for a more expeditious switching of the bodies. Lee said she refused, and by the time all 11 children and the cemetery signed the proper affidavits, 22 days had passed.
A second private service for Sadie Williams was held Sept. 8.
Ishmael Williams of Central Islip said he trusted the funeral home to take proper care of his mother.
"The whole family is shocked," he said. "The whole family is distraught. Not only did we have to do the funeral once but we had to do it twice. It affects me every day."