County Durham family searching for father's burial place after visiting wrong grave for 17 years

Tom Bell at the grave where his family thought their father was buried since his death in 2005. Credit: North News and Pictures

A family have described their anger and heartbreak after spending 17 years visiting a grave they thought was their father's - only to find out it belonged to someone else.

Tom Bell and his sisters only discovered the mistake following their mother's death last month and, as her last wish, had asked to be buried alongside her husband.

It was then the undertaker called to tell the family that gravediggers had found a woman's remains in the plot they thought was their dad's.

The family said they still did not know where their father, Thomas, was buried, and the body of their mother, Hilda, was still at the funeral home due to the error.

Tom, 58, of Easington, County Durham, 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."

Hilda Bell had been visiting what she believed to be the grave of her husband, Thomas, for 17 years until her own death in June this year. Credit: North News and Pictures

Workers, employed by the Diocese of Durham, have since dug up six plots at Holy Trinity Church, in Wingate, but have so far been unable to find Thomas Bell's remains.

Tom, a factory worker, said: "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

"We really could not believe what we were hearing. 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 is thought a mix up with the headstones on two plots after Thomas's burial in 2005 and the loss of an original graveyard map in a fire in the 1980s could be to blame.

The family said an unmarked plot just metres away could be where their father's remains will be found, but they are awaiting legal permission from the Chancellor of Diocese of Durham before it can be dug up.

Andrew Radcliffe from Speckman's funeral directors, who has been helping the grieving family, said he had never come across such a case in 20 years in the industry.

Rev Jane Grieve, Vicar at Holy Trinity Wingate, who was not at the church in 2005 when the graves were wrongly marked, 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."

The family hopes that their father's burial place is found and their mother Hilda will eventually be laid to rest beside her husband.

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