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Georgia law says little about how to hold a funeral home responsible for dooming a man’s spirit to a dreadful rebirth. But Fayetteville, Ga., lawyer Richard D. Hobbs says he would like to establish a new legal principle surrounding a family’s right to see to their dead in accordance with the manner of their faith. The issue, Hobbs says, arises in a recent suit he filed on behalf of Each Hang against Wages and Sons Funeral Home in Atlanta. Each Hang v. Wages and Sons Funeral Home Inc. No. 00A64857-6 (DeKalb St. filed Feb. 22, 2000). The home was to handle the Buddhist funeral services of Hang’s husband Khin Tep, who died in March 1998. Rather than letting the body lie in state for seven days of prayer and mourning as the Buddhist faith prescribes, the home cremated Tep’s body the day he died. According to the family and to experts on Buddhism, the premature cremation may have condemned Tep to a horrifying afterlife and rebirth. The family is demanding restitution. “They sincerely believe their father is suffering through at best a lesser afterlife because of what happened,” Hobbs says. ‘DENIAL OF CLOSURE’ The trick is determining what the law can do about it, Hobbs says. After months of study and research, he says he would like to establish a new tort — “denial of closure.” When somebody interferes so intrusively into the funeral process, he says, the family should be able to collect. Mourners have the right to say goodbye to their loved ones in the manner they see fit, he says. “I’ve had a hard time finding out what it’s worth,” Hobbs says. “All I had was basically negligence, but that’s not really what I was looking for.” The principle might apply to people who deliberately disrupt a funeral service so that it cannot continue, he says, or to someone who hides a body after a murder so the family is denied a proper burial. “This is a principle that should be recognized,” he says. “This is an injury that could be made.” BUDDHIST VIEW OF DEATH Emory University professor of religion Eric R. Reinders says the period immediately following clinical death is extremely important among Buddhists. “In a Buddhist sense, death is more of a process. It’s less of a moment,” he says. Rather than conceiving of life and death as a candle flame or a light switch that is either on or off, Reinders says, Buddhists believe that death is the gradual disassembling of elements that combine to generate life. When a person dies, Reinders says, elements such as mind, body, and spirit separate but do not vanish. Most importantly, he says, the consciousness continues and hovers near the body. “The consciousness is still present somehow, floating around — but still somehow present and likely somewhat confused and frightened,” he says. Reinders refers to the period of mourning before burial by the Tibetan term “bardo” — the transition period during which family and friends try to reassure the deceased’s consciousness and direct it into the next rebirth. Whether one’s new life is better or worse than the previous, Reinders says, depends not only on how one lived, but how one died. “The moment of death is very important — the approach to it and the time immediately after,” he says. “That’s the time when your next birth will be decided.” Without a full period of bardo, with its blessings, rituals, and mourning, Tep could be born again in anxiety, confusion, fear, or pain, Reinders says. “It potentially could mean a very bad rebirth,” he says. MOURNING PROCESS On the day of Tep’s clinical death, his family began the seven days of bardo: burning candles, praying, and placing clothing, water, and food on his bed. After the cremation, the family typically preserves the bones of the dead, washes them, gilds them, and then prays over them during an extended service. “It might sound weird if you’re not accustomed to it but for millions and millions of people it’s as normal as saying that your soul goes to God when you die,” Reinders says. “It’s just the way that one would do it in Asia.” But on the day bardo began for Tep, Hobbs says, the funeral home cremated the body. In accordance with Western practice, the bones were then ground into fragments small enough to fit in an urn. “Somebody — they don’t know who — cremated him that day and then chipped him up into little, tiny pieces,” he says. Three days after the cremation, the funeral home called Tep’s son Rithea and asked him to come to the home. According to Hobbs, the director likened the error to a videotape that can’t be rewound. One of the funeral home’s workers, he said, had mistaken a seven for a two, and had burned Tep early. Aghast, Rithea told his siblings in secret to avoid traumatizing their mother. Though strict Buddhist protocol demands an actual body and an open casket, Rithea decided to go forward with the formal service with a closed, empty coffin. Some of the 200 mourners made disparaging remarks about the closed coffin, Hobbs says. The Buddhist monks who were to bless the body complained they would be unable to perform the traditional blessings without seeing the body. In the end, the fragments of bone the family received were too small to gild, and they began to disintegrate as the family washed them. Rithea, Hobbs says, began to wonder whether the remains really had come from his father. The family “came to us weeping,” he says. “They were crying.” If the remains are not Tep’s, Reinders says, from a spiritual standpoint “things could go totally haywire.” The family wouldn’t specify what they think might happen to Tep, he says, but it’s clear they’re anxious about his fate. “It’s just kind of a bad feeling they have,” he says. “And they never really were able to say goodbye.” Reinders says the death remains unresolved for the living and the dead. Though Hobbs can do little for Tep’s immortal spirit, he can certainly help his family. Wages had performed this kind of service before, and it should have known better, he says. The staff knew what the family expected, Hobbs says. Tep’s life story is compelling, Hobbs says. A former professor at the University of Phnom Penh, in 1975 Tep was captured and tortured by the Khmer Rouge until friends convinced his captors he was illiterate and posed no threat to the regime. Tep, his wife, and his nine children worked 14-hour days in the Cambodian “Freedom Camps.” In 1980, Tep paid a guide to smuggle his family to U.N. refugee camps, but they came under fire, and Tep was forced to return with three of his daughters. Eight years later, Rithea, living on a farm in northern Georgia, sponsored his father and sisters so they could reunite in America. On arrival, Tep began again to practice Buddhism, which was prohibited under the Khmer Rouge. Hobbs is asking for $2 million for Tep’s family. The funeral home’s insurance company has offered about $25,000. “I am very mindful that you have indicated the belief that my opinion of the value of this case was unrealistic,” he wrote in a letter to the home’s insurance company. “However, I am very confident that the emotional strain this family has endured this past year will transcend to a jury very well.” James T. Budd of Mabry & McClelland in Atlanta, who represents the funeral home’s insurance company, says the company does not comment on pending litigation.

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