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Mistaken Identity

A funeral parlour’s shocking blunder.

Case reviewed: Zhaoping v Funeral Parlor of Anyang City, The People’s Court of Tiexi District of Anyang City, Henan Province, China
Civil No 1 of 1993


On 20 December 1993, over 270 people attended the funeral of Li Mingxian.  But when two of the deceased’s colleagues were paying their respects, they realised the body in the glass coffin did not belong to Mingxian.  The plaintiff and her siblings then went forward and confirmed it was not their father’s body.  According to the judgment, “This, at once, caused chaos in the ceremony”.

It was only upon being caught out that funeral parlour disclosed that, owing to an employee’s error, Mingxian’s remains had been cremated already.

The plaintiff sought compensation for the distress the incident caused, an apology published in the Anyang Daily, and the return of the 50 Rmb “tip” that had been paid to the funeral parlour (about NZD$11.50 in 2015).

The funeral parlour admitted its error and raised no objection to the plaintiff’s claim.


On 27 December 1993—a mere week after the incident—the Court, presided by Zhiping J, conducted a conciliation, through which the parties reached settlement.

The funeral parlour agreed to:

  • pay compensation to the plaintiff of 2,210 Rmb (about NZD$500);

  • return the 50 Rmb “tip”;

  • publish the requested apology in the newspaper; and

  • pay the court costs of 100 Rmb (about NZD$22).

On 30 December 1993, the plaintiff was to have collected her father’s ashes, and that was that.


With family honour and ‘face’ being such important concepts in China, it is not really of surprise that the shame-and-humiliation component of the incident was regarded as ‘defamation’.

However, such tortious action would not be available under New Zealand law—the plaintiff would not be regarded to have suffered reputational harm under our legal orthodoxies, so defamation would be out.  More likely a claim could be brought for breach of contract, negligence or otherwise under consumer law.

Probably the most disturbing—and baffling—part of this case is that the funeral parlour actually sought to disguise their error with a different body… displayed in a glass coffin!

Finally, a Google search reveals that such mistaken-identity blunders by funeral parlours are not at all uncommon.  Just in the last year, similar blunders were made in ChicagoColumbusBirmingham and Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.