DALLAS – A Houston-area man has filed a lawsuit after his wife's casket was unearthed and carried away by recent floodwaters and deposited along a trail where it was discovered by people on a morning walk.
Richard Lee, of Richmond, says in his lawsuit that his late wife's casket floated away due to "improper burial," causing him "post-traumatic-stress disorder, nausea, shock, grief ... and outraged feelings."
Images of the casket on the trail last week were circulated widely, but it's only the latest example of a recurring problem that cemeteries face during severe weather.
Carolyn Lee's casket, which remained closed, floated from Riceville Cemetery last week after 11 inches of rain fell in some parts of the Houston area, resulting in flooding that damaged thousands of homes and other structures and forced motorists to abandon at least 2,500 vehicles across Houston.
The rains swelled Keegans Bayou, which consumed the adjacent cemetery that's owned by Riceville Mt. Olive Baptist Church, where the Lees worshipped for decades before her death in 2007 from lung disease. She was 59.
"Bodies aren't supposed to come out of the ground," said Richard Lee's lawyer, Annie McAdams. "Something went wrong here."
It's not uncommon for floods and hurricanes to wash away caskets. After Hurricane Rita struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, there were more than 300 bodies that were missing from cemeteries in Cameron Parish, Louisiana. Some caskets were carried about 20 miles from where they were buried.
Hurricane Ike in 2008 dredged up caskets in the southeast Texas city of Orange, where they were found overturned and flung against one another. And days after Hurricane Irene came ashore in 2011, floodwaters coursed through a Vermont cemetery, pulled coffins from the ground and scattered remains for miles.
Lucy McCann, the director of the Louisiana Cemetery Board, said past hurricanes haven't resulted in any regulatory changes for burials.
"You can't change the style of burial if people want to bury a certain way," said McCann, adding that above-ground burial sites are occasionally breached by rising water but seldom are underground ones.
Kyle Smith, spokesman for the Texas Funeral Service Commission, said the problem has not spurred changes in state rules. A number of factors can lead to a wayward casket, including the severity of a flood, the terrain and whether it was buried on a hillside, he said.
"Most cemeteries in flood-prone areas have instituted policies that require funeral homes to bury within vaults," Smith said.
Carolyn Lee's casket was placed in a concrete vault, which in many cases have holes that allow underground water to seep in and then back out. The top of the vault was above-ground, but it's not clear whether the floodwater pushed the top aside and flushed out the casket, said McAdams. She said it isn't known if other caskets at the cemetery were also unearthed.
Neither the Robinson Funeral Home, which is named as the defendant in the case, nor the Riceville Mt. Olive Baptist Church, which owns and operates the cemetery, responded to calls seeking comment about the lawsuit.
Riceville Mt. Olive has offered to provide a discount for reburial, McAdams said, but Lee has found the offer and the church's conduct objectionable. Carolyn Lee's body is being kept at another Houston funeral home until it can be interred again. That home has offered to donate a new casket, vault and services for reburial, McAdams said.
After water receded from the cemetery, Richard Lee went to see his wife's gravesite but was told by a church representative he wouldn't be allowed on the land until he first signed a statement promising that he wouldn't seek damages from the church, McAdams said.
"A matter of course is to work together to find out what happened," she said, not invoke legal protections.