Image: Van Ryn memorial
Polaris file
Mourners pay their respects at a memorial service for Laura VanRyn in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Monday.
updated 6/7/2006 8:39:39 AM ET 2006-06-07T12:39:39

Crews on Tuesday exhumed the body of Laura VanRyn from a Michigan cemetery where the parents of a college classmate had buried her in a tragic case of mistaken identity.

The gates to Fairview Cemetery in Gaylord were closed Tuesday morning as workers dug out the grave with a front-end loader and lifted the casket from the ground.

A week earlier, VanRyn’s family had discovered that the severely injured young woman they thought was their daughter was actually her classmate, Whitney Cerak. And Cerak’s family learned that body they had buried in late April was actually VanRyn’s, while Cerak was alive.

The two young women looked remarkably alike. They had been together on April 26, returning from banquet preparations with a group from Taylor University, when a tractor-trailer slammed into their university van.

Cerak’s family was told after the crash that their then-18-year-old daughter was dead, and they never viewed the body.

VanRyn’s parents were told their 22-year-old daughter was alive but seriously injured and in a coma. The hospitalized young woman had a swollen face, broken bones and severe cuts and bruises, and the VanRyns didn’t realize until she began regaining consciousness that she was actually Cerak.

The mix-up was confirmed by dental records last week.

On Sunday, friends and relatives gathered to remember VanRyn, a senior who was just weeks shy of graduation from Taylor University, an evangelical Christian college in Upland, Ind., about 60 miles northeast of Indianapolis.

VanRyn’s body was to arrive Tuesday afternoon at Zaagman Memorial Chapel in Grand Rapids, owner Bog Zaagman said. A private graveside service was expected within a few days.

The Grant County, Ind., coroner who handled the case after the van crash has apologized for the mistake. Coroner Ron Mowery said acquaintances of the students had identified the survivor as VanRyn, but no scientific tests were conducted to verify the dead woman’s identity. He said a deputy coroner had urged Cerak’s sister not to immediately view the body after being told that Cerak was dead.

Cerak making progress
The Ceraks, who have started posting updates about her on a Web log that had been started by VanRyn’s relatives, as well as on their church’s Web site, said Whitney, now 19, has been sitting up and talking.

“We are overjoyed with Whitney’s progress in the past several days since our last communication,” her father, Newell Cerak, wrote Tuesday in a posting on the Gaylord Evangelical Free Church Web site.

“She has been increasing in endurance each moment, it seems — sitting up to eat her meals, feeding herself and cleaning the plate. ... She continues to ask when she (can) go home and when she can be rid of the neck brace.”

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Video: Body of ID mix-up woman exhumed

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