ADA, Mich. – After believing for more than a month that Laura VanRyn survived a van crash that killed five people, her friends and relatives were gathering Sunday to remember the young woman who was misidentified in a tragic mix-up.
VanRyn's family planned to exhume the 22-year-old college senior's body, which was buried April 30 under a tombstone with the name of her classmate, Whitney Cerak.
Members of VanRyn's church prayed for her and her family Sunday morning as the congregation prepared for a memorial service later in the day.
"This week, we were introduced to a concept that can only be called retroactive grieving," the Rev. Andy Smith of Forest Hills Bible Chapel said.
Members of Cerak's family, however, "have experienced a resurrection of sorts, and we can rejoice with them," he said.
About 180 miles to the north in Cerak's hometown of Gaylord, about 1,000 worshippers at Gaylord Evangelical Free Church offered prayers and listened Sunday as the Rev. Jim Mathis described the reunion between Cerak and her parents after the mistake was discovered.
"I saw a scene from heaven," Mathis said, his voice choking with emotion. "I'll never be the same, folks."
Cerak, who bore a resemblance to VanRyn, was in a coma until recently and suffered a swollen face and broken bones, cuts and bruises and brain injuries in the crash.
VanRyn's parents did not begin to question whether she was actually their daughter until, as she regained consciousness, she started saying things that did not make sense to them, including referring to VanRyn's father by a pet name he did not recognize.
She replied "Whitney" several times after VanRyn's parents addressed her as "Laura," Anne Veltema, a spokeswoman with Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Mich., said last week. Dental records conclusively confirmed the mix-up Wednesday.