Judging by the number of mourners, Kevin Ridge‘s first funeral has his second one beat.

Despite the funeral director’s surprising insistence on a closed casket, the Aug. 14, 2011, service at a Methodist church in Murrells Inlet, S.C., attracted well-wishers from across the country. Obviously, the 51-year-old professor had made some mark on the world before his death in a D.C. hotel room days earlier. Even mourners from Canada came, his family later recalled.

A little more than a week later, Ridge’s mother, Sheila, found a letter on her porch. Its message was as simple as it was hard to process: “The body you buried was not your son.”

Kevin Ridge’s casket never contained his body at all, read the letter from the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, according to a civil suit Sheila Ridge filed with Kevin’s sisters last month against the District and two funeral homes. Instead, Kevin Ridge’s grave held the decomposing body of an unidentified homeless man who had died months earlier.

“Because of an administrative error the wrong body was sent to you for burial,” the letter continued. “Again, we apologize for this mistake.”

The letter gave Sheila Ridge anxiety attacks and chest pains, she alleges, and it left her family wondering: Why is Kevin still nearly 500 miles away in the District’s morgue? If Kevin isn’t in his grave, who is? Now the answers could end up costing the District millions.

The homeless man, referred to in records as John Doe, died on March 31, 2011, when a car struck and killed him somewhere in the District. An associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Texas, Kevin Ridge died on Aug. 7, 2011, in a D.C. hotel while in town for a conference. The lawsuit doesn’t describe his cause of death. Beverly Fields, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office, declined to provide it, citing the ongoing litigation.

After Ridge’s death, his sisters, Kathleen Swanson and Kelly Fiegl, flew to Washington to identify pictures of their brother’s body at the medical examiner’s office. After the identification, the medical examiner contracted Alexandria’s Metropolitan Funeral Service funeral home to prepare the body for its trip.

Neither the Ridge family nor the medical examiner’s office agreed to be interviewed for this story. Metropolitan did not respond to requests for comment.

In South Carolina, Ridge’s family hired Goldfinch Funeral Services to arrange the transportation and burial. To prepare the funeral, Ridge’s family provided a Goldfinch funeral director, Tony Papel, with several items: clothes Ridge could be buried in, belongings to go in the casket, and a large photograph of Ridge for the ceremony.

Two days later, Papel made a surprising call to the Ridge family, according to the lawsuit. He allegedly insisted that the body was in an “unviewable” condition, making an open casket funeral impossible.

How could so many people, at the D.C. medical examiner’s office and at two funeral homes, fail to see that the body was not Kevin Ridge? The differences in the two men’s physical appearances make the switch even more unlikely. Ridge was white, while John Doe was black or biracial, according to records Ridge’s family obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Ridge was clean-shaven, while Doe was scruffy.

There was another incongruity: time. Ridge died about a week before his first funeral; John Doe was decomposing at the medical examiner’s office for nearly five months. While storage at a medical examiner’s office can slow the deterioration of a corpse, a body that’s been there for five months still looks drastically different from one that’s been there seven days, according to John Carmon, the former president of the National Funeral Directors Association.

Meghan Goldfinch, a spokeswoman for the Goldfinch funeral home, offers one explanation for how her family’s business could have missed the obvious.

According to Goldfinch, Doe’s body had decayed so much that it wasn’t possible to make out his facial features, much less his race. Because of the body’s state, it was impossible to tell if it matched the picture of Ridge his family had provided, Goldfinch says. In that sense, the switch might have been more conspicuous with a more recently deceased corpse.

Of course, the severe decomposition should have set off alarm bells on its own. But Goldfinch insists her funeral home had no reason to think anything was wrong. The tags on the body indicated it was Ridge, she insists, and the company wouldn’t receive the death certificate from the D.C. medical examiner, containing more details about Ridge’s death, until much later.

By then it was too late, and John Doe was already in Ridge’s grave, according to the complaint. While the family had the correct body flown from D.C. to South Carolina shortly after receiving the medical examiner’s letter, a new funeral in his intended grave was forestalled because the family needed a court order to exhume Doe’s body.

Instead, exactly one month after he died, Kevin Ridge was buried on Sept. 9 at a small service in a plot his mother had intended to use herself.

The Ridge family filed a FOIA request to learn more about the nameless man in Kevin’s grave, and, over the alleged objections of the medical examiner’s office, eventually obtained information. He was exhumed on Sept. 14, 2011.

Now, in a lawsuit filed on Nov. 9, Ridge’s mother and two sisters are suing the District, Metropolitan, and Goldfinch for negligence, emotional distress, and breach of contract. They’re asking for $5 million for Sheila Ridge and $1 million for each of his sisters. A D.C. Superior Court scheduling hearing is set for February.

Ridge’s story echoes the 2005 case of Oscar Javiera Rivera Ortiz and another man, whose corpse the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner sent on an even longer trip. Ortiz, who died from a methadone overdose, was supposed to be shipped back to El Salvador. Instead, a mix-up with a body with a similar identification number on its toe tag left Ortiz in the medical examiner’s office, and the District and El Salvador struggling to exhume an unidentified, decomposed body that had been buried in Ortiz’s place. At the time, Fields, the spokeswoman for the medical examiner, told the Washington Post that the office subsequently added new procedures that would reduce body-switching, like requiring employees to open the body bags before transferring them.

Carmon says responsibility for making sure the right body gets buried lies with the funeral home. But that job becomes more difficult when documents from a medical examiner are inaccurate, especially when a body is decomposing. “We’re not even supposed to believe a government entity like the medical examiner?” he asks.

As for John Doe, the Goldfinch funeral home exhumed the body and put it on a plane back to Washington, following the medical examiner’s request. Hopefully, it didn’t get mixed up on the way.

Graphic by Carey Jordan.