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Family receives wrong body after mother's death

5:53 AM, Jan 13, 2014   |    comments
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(CNN) -- Rhode Island resident Lisa Kondvar remembers her mother as a beautiful, small and vivacious blonde.

So she was shocked to see the body of a tall brunette woman lying in the open casket at her mother's wake in New Jersey on December 9.

Right away, the tears and the crying stopped. Kondvar and her family immediately closed the casket and left the room, she said.

"It wasn't mom," Kondvar said. "They sent us the wrong body."

Her mother, Margaret Porkka, was vacationing in St. Maarten on the family's annual Thanksgiving trip when Porkka suddenly died after feeling light-headed.

Porkka, 82, was pronounced dead at St. Maarten Medical Center on November 29, the morning after Thanksgiving. Other than a pacemaker and a right hip replacement, Kondvar said, her mother was in good health and very active.

"It didn't make sense. She was full of life," Kondvar said. "My mother was a picture of health. She ran circles around me."

Kondvar said her family was told their mother's body had been taken to Emerald Funeral Home in St. Maarten, where the funeral director denied their request to see their mother and demanded a $7,000 wire-transfer-only fee to send the body back to the United States.

"That gave me a red flag," Kondvar told CNN. "When I hear 'wire transfer,' I get cautious."

Eager to get their mother's body back on American soil and not knowing of any alternative, the family wired the money and left their mother's passport, necessary information for the death certificate, and a set of clothes for the funeral services.

The body that arrived in a casket at the New Jersey funeral home on December 6 was not her mother, Kondvar said. But the body was dressed in Porkka's clothing and was accompanied by her passport and death certificate. The casket also had a small, red-velvet pouch containing jewelry and items that Kondvar said did not belong to her mother.

"There was a medical bracelet that said 'angina.' My mother didn't have angina," she told CNN.

Now, Kondvar and her family want answers, and they want their mother back, she said.

"It pains me that she's gone, and it's even worse because I don't have her and I want to hold her one more time, and I can't do that," Kondvar said.

Repeated calls to St. Maarten Medical Center and Emerald Funeral Home over the weekend were not returned. Kondvar said she hasn't heard from the hospital or the funeral home since leaving St. Maarten.

Kondvar, who is a nurse, said she contacted U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, for help. Reed, a personal friend of Kondvar, has been in touch with the U.S. consulate in St. Maarten and is closely monitoring the situation, according to Reed's spokesman, Chip Unruh.

According to Kondvar, Emerald Funeral Home in St. Maarten was supposed to notify the U.S. consulate of Porkka's death so the office could arrange for the body to be accompanied back to America. That never happened, Kondvar said.

As if the situation weren't already complicated, there's reason to believe that somehow her mother's body was mistakenly sent to a family in Canada and cremated, Kondvar told CNN.

"If it is mom up in Canada, we want her back. We certainly don't hold anything against this family because they're in grief," she said. "I can't even imagine what they're going through."

Unruh said Reed has expedited a DNA test to determine whether the body that was sent to Canada is in fact Kondvar's mother.

"It's a nightmare," Unruh said.

The government of St. Maarten issued a statement on its website explaining some of what happened.

Two women, one Canadian and one American, died on November 29 and were taken to the same funeral home, it said. The government honored the families' requests to send the bodies to their respective homes, and the deceased women were flown to the United States on the same airline.

"Upon collection of the deceased the next of kin of both deceased persons claimed that this was not the body of their respective relatives and have lodged a complaint with the local law enforcement authorities. The body that was flown to Canada has since been cremated," the government website said.

DNA analyses "will be carried out in order to verify conclusively the identity of both bodies. As soon as there is more information available it will be made available through the representatives of the respective Governments, the families of the deceased and the respective media outlets," the government statement said.

As Porkka's family awaits the test results, Kondvar said she has a terrible, gut feeling the body in Canada is not her mother's.

"If it's not her, I don't know where that leaves us," she said.

Kondvar told CNN the St. Maarten government is performing an internal investigation into what went wrong. But Kondvar is wary. She's been in touch with the State Department and wants to hire an international attorney to lead her own investigation.

"I want an outside investigation. I don't trust that government. They've hurt my family," she said.

Kondvar, a resident of Warwick, said she's not sure whether she will ever return to St. Maarten, although she has fond memories of the island and the residents from her family vacations.

"(My mother) loved St. Maarten. That's why it brings me some kind of peace, is that she died in paradise," Kondvar said.

CNN's Lawrence Crook III contributed to this report.

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