A widow described the horrifying moment her husband’s coffin was dropped and broke open during his funeral, leaving him on view to more than 400 people.
Debbie Swales, 52, says she has been suffering a living hell since the moment her husband’s body was exposed to hundreds of mourners as they tried to lay him to rest.
She was forced to hold a second funeral for late husband Gavin, 55, following the harrowing incident.
Speaking out publicly for the first time, she said pallbearers lowering him into his grave at Newcastle’s West Road Cemetery dropped the wooden coffin, leaving the dad on show.
Debbie, of South West Denton in Newcastle, said the pallbearers responsible fled the scene leaving the couple’s children to leap into the plot to recover Gavin’s body.
‘I just burst into tears,’ she said. ‘The lid smashed open and the kids jumped in [to his grave]. When lifting the coffin out it just fell to bits.
‘Imagine that happening to your loved one. It is not private, 400 to 500 people were able to see him laid there.’
The family had envisaged a dignified send-off in November 2015 for a man known as a ‘gentle giant’.
Heartbroken Debbie and her family rearranged Gavin’s funeral, which was held for a second time in two days, using a different funeral director.
But for the mother-of-eight the damage had already been done. The memory of her husband had been tarnished and it is something she says she can never forgive funeral director Clark Pearson for.
She said: ‘When I saw Gavin he just didn’t look the same. He had a cut across his face as a result of the coffin breaking. It has haunted me ever since.
‘I can’t get on with living my life because I’ve been grieving for so long.
‘It is not just the fact they dropped him. Of course it was an accident.
‘But who would run away? You would front up to what happened and not leave the family to jump into the grave.’
Gavin died after battling leukaemia and kidney cancer, an ordeal which started in 2013.
Brother Frankie stepped in to donate his bone marrow and Gavin’s health started to improve. But the dad’s progress was halted when he got pneumonia. Just months after undergoing a second transplant, Gavin died.
Debbie, who also has six grandchildren, has received counselling since the incident.
‘The last four years have been hell,’ Debbie said. ‘Every time I see Gavin I just see the image of him in a broken coffin with people running around chaotically and family members being left to get him out.
‘I haven’t been to another funeral since, not even my best friend’s.
‘The kids can’t go to Gavin’s grave because they have flashbacks.’
In August, the family reluctantly accepted a settlement of £136,500 with the funeral directors.
But a £77,000 legal bill and other fees meant the Swales family ended up with around £47,000.
To this day Debbie claims to have never received an apology from Clark Pearson, which is still operating in Newcastle.
Debbie said: ‘It means after all we’ve been through me and my children have ended up with just over £5,000 each. It’s an absolute insult.
‘All I’ve wanted is justice for my husband. It has not, and never will be, about the money. But my family has been through hell the past four years and Clark Pearson needed to realise what they have done to us.
‘People say that time heals, but I don’t feel any different now to what I did on the day of his funeral. I feel empty and I just can’t be happy. I am always going to be carrying this sadness around for the rest of my life.’
Newcastle City Council took no action against Clark Pearson for the incident. Instead, the authority confirmed they met with all funeral directors in the area to remind them of their roles and responsibilities as a result of the incident.
A statement from Clark Pearson’s solicitor said: ‘Clark Pearson deeply regrets this unfortunate incident and the distress that was caused to the family.
‘Settlement of the claims was agreed at mediation, so it would be inappropriate for Clark Pearson to comment any further.’
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