Burial Death + Crime Death + the Law

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.


corpses-300x225I 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.

5 replies on “91 Year Old’s Pennsylvania Corpse Abuse Case is Complicated”

There’s something very touching and beautiful about what this woman did. The hullabaloo is repellent. Holding one’s dead close is alien neither to the human psyche or culture. Here’s Tom Jokinen, in Curtains: “According to the anthropologist Nigel Barley, the Toraja of Sulawesi wrap their dead tightly in absorbent cloth to preserve them until the next stage of the ritual, which may not come for years. He met a man who kept his dead grandmother in his house as a storage shelf for his collection of alphabetically organized cassette tapes.”

My favourite story in this line is that of Plymouth City Council’s pursuit of Robert Lenkiewicz’ stuffed tramp, Diogenes, which he successfully hid from them. Diogenes was found in a drawer after Lenkiewicz’ death; the estate fought to keep it and the Council was confounded. Marvellous.

I wonder how many dead people presently reside in deep freezes? In the UK there is no law against it.

On a related matter, I wonder what you good people know about UK laws relating to ‘abuse of a corpse’? I know that sexual penetration is outlawed. But a little light cannibalism? I don’t know that there’s anything to stop us. Please enlighten me if you can.

My question relating to this article, specifically references the abuse of corpse statues. Would it then be illegal to defend yourself against a zombie attack or “zompocalypse”? As any action taken to defend onself would usually be considered abuse of an inanimate corpse?

I suppose this question seems superfluous, however I cannot help but wonder the answer

Charles: Good question on the cannibalism. Or, well, interesting legal query. If a family felt offence at the eating of the dead body by another party then the Crown Prosecution could step in and press charges. It is a bit of a legal blackhole.

John: I have actually heard the Zombie question raised before. The answer is that if there were a true Zombie attack then a state of emergency would ensue during which killing said zombies would override any corpse abuse laws. You can also make the case that since a zombie can defend itself (up to a point) then it’s not a typical corpse. Zombies are also animate creatures so they don’t technically exist in the same legal space as corpses.

There is an excellent law journal article in this question.

Think about someone you’ve known almost all your life and having i to give them up no its not weird she fo that its heart breaking she’s alone now she just loved them so much yes I can see that but no not weird at all

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