After Kieron Kenny died in 1989 aged 43, his widow Kathleen Walsham stipulated his ashes be scattered in a garden of rest near their east London home rather than being interred in an urn.
Ms Walsham claims that would have been in-line with her husband’s wishes, because he had been “very claustrophobic and scared of the dark” and would have wanted to be “set free”.
For the next 27 years, Mrs Walsham and her three children visited the garden of rest at the East London Cemetery, West Ham, on Fathers’ Days, birthdays and other occasions to pay respects.
But in 2016 they were shocked to be told Mr Kenny’s ashes had in fact been handed to his estranged mum, Iris Garbutt, and buried in a grave in Essex.
According to her grandson James Briggs, Mrs Garbutt – who had fallen out with her son and his family years before his death – secretly obtained his ashes from an employee of the cemetery and interred them in a grave that only her side of the family knew about, whilst his widow and kids unknowingly mourned elsewhere.
Following Mrs Garbutt’s death, the story emerged and a grave bearing Mr Kenny’s name at Eastbrookend Cemetery, Dagenham, was disinterred under a warrant from the Ministry of Justice and an urn containing material was found inside.
Mrs Walsham and her grown up children Kenneth Thurtell, Danielle Saggers and their sister Antonia say they are traumatised by their terrible experience and say Dignity are liable.
But the funeral company – being sued as the current owner after buying the cemetery in 2008 – are fighting the claim and say the family have no evidence that the ashes of the late Mr Kenny ever found their way into the wrong hands or the wrong grave.
Judge David Saunders heard at Central London County Court that Mr Kenny and Mrs Walsham, a former legal secretary, went to primary school together and were teenage sweethearts, getting married when they were 21.
Mrs Garbutt and her son had fallen out before that and refused to attend their wedding, the judge was told.
The couple went on to have three children, but the rift between them and Mrs Garbutt and her side of the family never healed, the court heard.
After he died, it fell to his widow as his next of kin to decide what would happen to his remains.
She offered an olive branch to her estranged mother-in-law and allowed her full access to her plans and arrangements for the funeral, but was then betrayed, she told the judge in the witness box.
“My decision was that Kieron’s ashes be scattered in the ornamental garden at East London because of the fact he was so terrified of the dark and so very very claustrophobic that being set free would be the best decision, not interring him,” she said.
As far as she knew, her wishes had been complied with and she told the judge: “We would go there on anniversaries, birthdays and Fathers Day to grieve. Often I would go there anyway to be near him.”
But in 2016, following Mrs Garbutt’s death, the family got a terrible shock when her grandson James Briggs revealed to them that his side of the family had been mourning Mr Kenny at a grave in Dagenham, bought and paid for by his late Nan, which she had insisted contained her son’s ashes and was his true resting place.
Mr Briggs told the judge that his Nan said she had “acquired” the ashes from an employee at East London Cemetery and that Mrs Garbutt had thereafter “sent her a Christmas card every year” and spoke of being “eternally grateful” to her.
She had also replied to questions about why her late son’s widow and children never visited the grave by saying that she was “frightened they would call the police if they ever did so,” Mr Briggs told the judge.
The grave was disinterred and an urn containing what the family say was the late Mr Kenny’s ashes was recovered in September 2016 and subsequently scattered in the River Thames.
Mrs Walsham is now suing Dignity Plc and Dignity Ltd, claiming they are liable for her family’s trauma through the action of the East London Cemetery employee.
The widow says she and her kids have suffered psychological personal injury through their ordeal and want compensation.
James Rozier, for Dignity Plc and Dignity Ltd, expressed sympathy for the family and acknowledged the “significant impact the situation has had on the claimant’s mental health.”
While the company doesn’t dispute the “traumatic” circumstances, it claims the situation didn’t arise from “breach of any duty on its part”.
The hearing continues.