Family steals body from mortuary over burial fight

SALT LAKE CITY – Teddy Serawop always wanted to be cremated after he died, with his ashes scattered across his favorite hunting lands in Utah’s Uinta Mountains, his mother and sister said. But his father’s side of the family wanted him buried in a traditional ceremony on the Northern Ute Tribe’s reservation.

When the two sides couldn’t agree, tribal members went to the mortuary in eastern Utah and removed his body, burying it on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in rural eastern Utah.

“I’ve been here 38 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” John Hullinger of Hullinger Mortuary in Roosevelt said Thursday. “We’ve served both of these families before, but the Ute Tribe took it into their own hands.”

Toxicology results are still pending to determine the cause of death for Serawop, a 32-year-old tribal member who died Nov. 5. His father also is a tribal member. His mother is not.

Unless a person leaves written instructions, decisions about burial fall to the legal spouse, children or parents of the deceased.

Serawop had three children with a woman who also is a tribal member. A tribal court named her his common-law wife and issued two orders to the mortuary to release the body to her and his father’s family. However, because the mortuary is not on the reservation, Hullinger said, its legal counsel advised the mortuary to wait for a state or federal judge to weigh in on the matter.

Hullinger Mortuary was still awaiting a ruling when tribal members arrived to pay their respects Tuesday night - along with tribal officers who served the mortuary with a third notice. Hullinger said his son was trying to negotiate with the two families when one of the officers closed the door, at which point tribal members removed the casket from the building, loaded it onto a truck and drove away.

Serawop’s older sister, 36-year-old Ricki Lynn Hackford, claims his common-law wife had since married another man and had no claims to her brother’s body. She said Serawop had always wanted to be cremated, but that she, her mother and sister agreed to bury him at a cemetery off the reservation instead.

“I didn’t even believe it. I didn’t believe it,” Hackford said Wednesday. “They kidnapped his body last night and no, as of now, we don’t know where my brother is.”

Tribal members still insisted he be buried on the reservation, she said.

“We don’t even know where they buried him,” Hackford said. “We haven’t been able to grieve yet, because we’ve been too busy fighting.”

The Ute tribe did not return a telephone call seeking comment Thursday.

Tribal leaders issued a statement criticizing the mortuary for engaging in “unequal treatment and institutional racism,” KSL television reported.

Serawop’s common-law wife and his family had every right to take his body from the mortuary, and he was buried in a cemetery pursuant to the cultural traditions of the Ute Indian Tribe, tribal leaders said.


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