Grieving Family Gets Brain of Dead Relative Sent to Them by Funeral Home

funeral/ABC News

A New Mexico family is suing two funeral homes after their deceased relative's brain was included in a bag of her personal effects.

"A brain is not what you'd expect with the return of personal effects, which included the clothing she was wearing at the time of her death and the jewelry she had on," said Richard Valle, the New Mexico-based attorney representing the family, only identified by initials in the lawsuit.

The family did not want to be named in order to "minimize disruption" to their lives, according to the court documents. They declined requests for an interview.

The dead woman reportedly died in a car crash in Utah in September.

VIDEO: A New Mexico funeral home gave a dead womans brain to her family.Play

Valle said that sometime during the process of transporting her body from Utah to New Mexico for burial, her brain was put in a plastic bag, labeled "brain" and later given to the family.

"Their reaction was what you would expect; horror, shock, outrage and then tremendous grief," Valle said. "They just finished burying their mother and didn't expect [to see her brain]."

The family was given a bag of personal effects of the woman after her funeral last year, Valle said, and one of the relatives had left it in his truck. When the family began noticing a smell coming from the bag, they opened it and found the brain.

"They initially thought that when she died, she maybe soiled herself and they needed to wash or discard the clothes," Valle said. "But, then, they saw the clear plastic bag labeled with their [relative's name] and with the word 'brain' on it.

"They knew what they had," he added.

The family has since buried the brain with the body.

The DeVargas Funeral Home and Crematory of the Espanola Valley in New Mexico, as well as the Serenicare Funeral Home in Draper, Utah, is named in the suit, which was filed Jan. 4 in state District Court in Albuquerque.

Funeral Homes Point Blame at Each Other

Owner Johnny DeVargas did not return messages left by but told the Albuquerque Journal that it was the Utah funeral home's fault that the brain ended up in the hands of the family.

"In the end, we inherited the problem from Utah," DeVargas told the paper. "We are a very reputable company and we were dealt a bad hand."

But Dick Johnson, the owner of Utah's Serenicare, said his funeral home had nothing to do with the brain's misplacement either.

"That would be incorrect," Johnson said, when asked if his funeral home put the brain in the bag of personal effects for the family.

The woman's brain had come out of her body during the car accident, he said, telling the Associated Press earlier that it is "common practice" to ship the brain inside a bag when it's damaged during death.

He also told the AP that the bag containing the brain was placed in a casket with the rest of the remains for transport to New Mexico and eventual burial but that a family is typically encouraged to let the funeral home discard the bag rather than take it home with them.

Johnson added that "in due time" the truth will come out in regard to which funeral home made a mistake.

In the meantime, the family of the deceased woman is hoping to be awarded unspecified punitive damages for the trauma they have endured, according to their attorney.

"They're angry, this just isn't right," Valle said of his clients. "We can't turn back time, unfortunately.

"Even [author] Stephen King wouldn't write something like this. It's too morbid, even for him."