91 Year Old’s Pennsylvania Corpse Abuse Case is Complicated
Widow Lives with Corpses of Husband, Twin
Michael Rubinkam, The Associated Press (July 05, 2010)
DA: Woman can Keep Corpses in Crypt
Michael Rubinkam, The Associated Press (July 07, 2010)
No charges yet for disinterring her kin
I am going to guess that more than a few people saw this story earlier in the week. It’s a classic dead-bodies-are-so-creepy narrative, which is made all the better because the story involves a totally normal, lovely old woman who kept said corpses in her home.
In this particular case, it was 91-year-old Jean Stevens keeping her dead husband in the garage and her dead sister in the spare bedroom. Here is the real shocker: these situations are not uncommon. They pop up from time-to-time with the usual macabre sense of horror and fascination. Indeed, when I was a child in Cincinnati, OH an older woman who lived in my neighborhood kept her dead father in the house for months. A whole army of children watched as the police went into the house and eventually wheeled out the dead man on a gurney (covered in a sheet), coughing from the smell.
What is slightly different about this Pennsylvania case is this: the dead bodies in question were embalmed, buried in their graves, and then exhumed for Jean Stevens. Who or whom did the exhuming has not been revealed. She then placed the bodies above ground.
I give Stevens credit for keeping both bodies undiscovered for a number of years. It also looks like Stevens was/is next-of-kin for both her husband and sister, which means that she had/has the legal right to determine final disposition for the dead bodies. She was fine until she had the bodies disinterred and moved to her home. This would be why the District Attorney is saying that Stevens can build a crypt on her property which could then be used for the husband and sister.
The DA is in a tight spot here, too, because he is talking about using Pennsylvania’s Abuse of Corpse law to charge Stevens with a misdemeanor. Here is that law:
Pennsylvania Statute: 5510. Abuse of Corpse.
Except as authorized by law, a person who treats a corpse in a way that he knows would outrage ordinary family sensibilities commits a misdemeanor of the second degree.
In case you are wondering, this is the same law used to charge people with necrophilia related crimes.
Which brings me to the following point. Without a doubt, Stevens improperly exhumed two different dead bodies and then improperly kept both bodies above ground. What I’m not so clear on is whether she outraged ordinary family sensibilities. I say this because it is clear that Jean Stevens committed these incomprehensible acts out of both love and grief. Furthermore, if she’s the last family member on the planet then whose ‘family’ is being outraged? These are philosophical arguments that don’t necessarily stand firm before the law.
That said, I expect that the DA won’t actually pursue misdemeanor charges. If he’s smart, he’ll help Stevens raise money for the crypt.
Macabre as this story initially sounds, it’s a useful lesson on how the law sees death in contradistinction to how family members do the same. Besides it not nearly as gruesome as this other Pennsylvania corpse story.
Alas, and unfortunately, most of the reporting uses the easiest hooks and angles. The WNET-TV nightly news video at the top is a perfect example.