FRESNO, Calif. – Xia Yang's relatives were shoveling dirt on their matriarch's grave, performing the last rite of a traditional Hmong (search) burial, when they saw something that made them scatter in panic.
The plot, they said, already contained rusty casket handles and decomposing human bones. Under the family's religious beliefs, burying their grandmother with someone else's bones could prevent her from journeying to the spiritual world.
"It was a big blow to the family," said Ka Vue, a son-in-law of Xia Yang. "People were in shock. You can see in the photos, they started scattering, saying this family will be cursed."
To set right the affront to their Old World beliefs, the Yangs turned to a very American remedy — a lawsuit seeking $5 million in damages. Attorney Scott Schutzman, who represents 11 family members, said the graveyard negligently sold the family a used grave.
Superior Court jurors resumed deliberations Monday to decide whether Mountain View Cemetery (search) committed breach of contract, negligence and fraud. They had begun Thursday.
Mountain View offered to refund the Yangs $1,914 and fill the plot with new dirt, but the family chose to sue, defense lawyer Eileen Deimerly said during trial. Cemetery officials said they would not comment until the case was over.
The Yangs claim the cemetery officials did not take them seriously and they felt humiliated. They left the cemetery without an apology, said Vue.
"We felt unwelcome, that we were not wanted," he said. "We just want to hear them say that what they did to us was wrong, and that it won't happen again."
While finding bones during burial could be repulsive to anyone, Vue said it is particularly offensive to his culture.
The Hmong, who arrived in the U.S. after helping the CIA (search) in Laos during the Vietnam War (search), believe the spirit should not be weighed down with anything that does not belong to the body — especially metal or other bones, said Bee Yang, an expert in Hmong culture at California State University at Fresno, who is not related to the family. Families even remove rings, artificial teeth or prosthetic limbs before burial.
Anthropologist William Bass testified that the bones belonged to a man and that the rusty casket handle dated to the 1920s or 1930s.
Yang, a respected shaman, was buried in a traditional oversized casket imported from Laos containing no metal, her family said. The funeral took place in a Hmong funeral home and drew over 100 visitors.
Ray Giunta, a former executive with the California Cemetery Board, testified last week that cemetery officials told him in 1995 that they only had two grave sites left. Since then, the cemetery has sold about 4,500 plots.
"If you want to bury people in an older section, you have a responsibility and a duty," Giunta testified. "It would fall far below the standard of care to not find out if there are other people already there."