Two former Holbrook residents filed a lawsuit this week alleging that a Suffolk County memorial chapel hired a South Carolina funeral home to transport their father’s body to Long Island — but the funeral home shipped another man’s remains instead.
The body of Clifford Zaner remained at Fletcher Funeral and Cremation Services in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, for more than a week after sisters Stacy Holzman and Megan Zaner buried an unidentified man in a family plot at Mount Ararat Cemetery in East Farmingdale, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint says employees of Star of David Memorial Chapels in West Babylon insisted the stranger was their deceased dad — even when they said they didn’t recognize the person in the coffin.
“It’s a nightmare,” Megan Zaner said. “This happens in movies, not to real people.”
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Suffolk County Supreme Court, seeks more than $50 million and names Star of David and Fletcher as defendants. It accuses both of gross negligence and Star of David of breach of contract.
“I want an apology, I want Star of David to admit that mistakes were made, that they should not have dismissed our concerns when we raised them, and that they have quality procedures in place to make sure this doesn’t happen to anybody else again,” Holzman said.
Clifford Zaner was 72 years old when he died in South Carolina on Feb. 25 from heart and respiratory failure, Zaner said. Her father grew up in Bethpage and raised his family in Holbrook before relocating to South Carolina. Holzman currently lives in South Carolina, while Zaner now resides in Texas.
The sisters said one reason they filed the lawsuit is because Star of David promised to refund the approximately $12,000 Clifford Zaner’s family paid for the funeral, but has failed to do so.
Katherine Heaviside, a spokeswoman for Star of David, blamed the South Carolina funeral home for the mix-up, insisting that the West Babylon chapel was also a victim of the blunder. Heaviside said Star of David had offered to refund the $12,000 but that she wasn’t sure when the funds would be sent.
“We deeply regret any sorrow experienced by the family for the mistake made by the funeral home in South Carolina,” Star of David said in a statement from Heaviside. “After the family confirmed the identification of the deceased at the cemetery, the burial proceeded. When the funeral home in South Carolina notified us of their mistake, we took swift and decisive action to contact the family and offer whatever services needed to lessen their grief.”
Star of David invited the family to view the remains in the days before the burial, Heaviside said.
Attorney Phil Rizzuto of Uniondale, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Holzman and Zaner, said the family did not confirm the identity of the body before the memorial service and burial and was never given that opportunity.
Representatives of Fletcher and Mount Ararat — which is not a defendant in the lawsuit — did not respond to requests for comment.
According to the lawsuit, Star of David took possession of remains believed to be Clifford Zaner’s on Feb. 27. The first time the family saw the body, Holzman and Zaner said, was in a coffin in a hearse in the Mount Ararat parking lot, shortly before the graveside memorial service was to begin on March 2. Heaviside said the chapel offered to let the family view the remains in the days prior to the memorial service.
The deceased man in the coffin was wearing the Led Zeppelin T-shirt and black pants provided by the family. But Clifford Zaner’s signature bushy mustache was gone and there were stitches in his head that a Star of David employee said was the result of an autopsy — even though the family had not requested an autopsy, the sisters said. His facial features looked sunken, they added.
“I saw a forehead that didn’t look like him, a big stomach that didn’t look like his, and his feet didn’t look like his,” Zaner said.
The Star of David employee explained the missing mustache by saying the company shaves everybody before burial, the sisters said. Facial features appear sunken, they said the Star of David employee added, because that is what happens when people die and are not embalmed.
“Every time my sister brought something to her attention, she just dismissed it with, you know, just another excuse of why he looks like that,” Zaner said.
“Every time I said things are wrong, I didn't recognize him, she had an excuse,” Holzman said. “So yeah, we did push back, but she insisted there was a reason we didn’t recognize him.”
The sisters said the Star of David employee looked like she was making a phone call, and then closed the hearse and proceeded to the grave for the service. Holzman and Zaner said their grieving family, already in shock from Clifford Zaner’s death, ultimately assumed the person they didn’t recognize in the coffin was their father.
“It doesn’t cross your mind that they gave you the wrong body,” Holzman said. “That is not something that a rational person thinks.”
Rizzuto, the sisters' attorney, said an insurance adjuster for the South Carolina company told him nobody at Fletcher or Star of David confirmed the body’s identity by checking the toe tag.
“It seems that there was a toe tag on Mr. Zaner and people just didn’t look at it,” Rizzuto said.
A Star of David representative notified the family that the wrong remains had been shipped north on March 11, Rizzuto said.
After learning about the mistake, the sisters decided to hold the memorial service and burial at a Jewish cemetery in Jacksonville, Florida. Other members of their extended family live in the Jacksonville area, they said.
“When we found out they didn’t bury him in New York, I couldn’t go back there,” Holzman said. “The trauma, the emotions of seeing somebody that they were telling me was my father that was not my father, I couldn’t go back to that cemetery. I couldn’t go back to that parking lot.”