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A family spent 17 years gathering at the graveside they believed to be their father’s final resting place before discovering that someone else entirely was buried down there.
Tom Bell and his sisters believed that their father Thomas Bell was under the soil at the Holy Trinity Church in Wingate, County Durham, but when they were making arrangements to have their recently deceased mother buried next to him, they were informed by the undertaker that someone else was down there.
That’s right – the gravediggers found the coffin of a woman in the plot where they believed their father to be.
That means that their mother Hilda has been in a funeral home for five weeks, because they still aren’t sure exactly where their father is buried.
58-year-old Tom, who lives in Easington, said: “Losing our mam was devastating.
“And then to be told the grave of our dad we have spent the last 17 years visiting is not his is just unbearable. How could this happen?
“Our mam is lying in a funeral home waiting to be buried and our dad is somewhere in the cemetery in an unmarked grave.”
So far, gravediggers for the Diocese of Durham have unearthed six graves, but still haven’t found where Thomas is buried.
There’s another element to this as well, because the woman who actually was in the grave has also been buried in the wrong spot, with her grave marked by the wrong headstone for 17 years as well.
Tom and his two sisters Denise and Debra lost their beloved mother to COPD in June, and they’d planned to bury her – as per her wishes – in the plot they’d bought when their dad did.
Tom explained: “Seventeen years ago when dad died mum bought the plot so she could be with him when she died.
“Mum used to go every Friday on her way to the hairdressers to take flowers and clean the gravestone.
“When they went to dig the grave two days before the funeral the gravedigger could only get five feet down when they should apparently be able to go eight feet down for a double plot and they found someone else's coffin in dad's grave.
“The funeral director Andrew, who has been really helpful, rang us and said he needed to come and speak to us face to face.
“We've had a funeral service but our mum is still in a funeral home waiting to be buried and they've dug up six graves so far trying to find our dad but we don't know where he is.”
It could be that there was a mix-up with the headstones in 2005 when Thomas was buried, but a fire in 1980 that destroyed an original graveyard map could also be to blame.
The family have identified an unmarked plot a few metres away that could contain their father’s coffin, and have asked for legal permission from the Chancellor of the Diocese of Durham to have this dug up.
Tom added: “In 2005 on the day dad was buried there were a few burials and we were grieving so couldn't remember exactly which plot was his and relied on the gravestone being right when we went back.
“We're now hoping he may be buried just couple of meters away.”
The funeral directors have confirmed that they have never seen anything like it, and the Reverend Jane Grieve, who performed Hilda’s funeral service on July 1, but wasn’t at the church in 2005, said: “We are all acutely aware of the increasing distress for everyone with every passing day.
“It was a difficult and emotional funeral to be part of, knowing we could not go out into the churchyard straight afterwards to lay Hilda to rest. I sensed both increasing shock and grief as the service went on.
“The distressing situation we face today goes back to the late 1990s and early 2000s when Wingate churchyard was still 'open' and receiving regular burials.
“It's been made more difficult to resolve by several key players from those years being no longer with us, and a break in and burning on the altar years ago of some historic church papers including an original graveyard plan.
“Since then funeral directors and gravediggers have used the gravedigger's plan when engaged by families to prepare plots for burials here. This part of the process does not directly involve the vicar or the church, though we are available to consult if ever needed.
“Our hearts and prayers really are with all affected as we continue to work for a resolution.”
In the end, the family simply hope that Hilda can be laid to rest with her husband.
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