Burial Death + Crime Death + the Law

Update on 91 Year Old Pennsylvania Woman Keeping Corpses in House

Happy Homecoming for Widow Who Lived with Corpses
Authorities found out and took the embalmed corpses away. She is having a mausoleum built on her property to get them back.
Michael Rubinkam, Associated Press (January 04, 2011)

A quick update on the July story about 91-year-old Jean Stevens in Pennsylvania. Stevens, many people will recall, had been keeping the embalmed bodies of both her husband and twin sister in her home. Pennsylvania officials quickly determined that this was not an appropriate form of final disposition for the bodies and took them away. I wrote about the original case here.

Back in July I suggested that Pennsylvania authorities should think twice about prosecuting Stevens and, instead, help her build a mausoleum for the bodies.

And lo, if that isn’t exactly what happened. The AP explains:

The 91-year-old widow [Jean Stevens] who lived with the embalmed corpses of her husband and twin sister — until authorities found out and took them away — is hopeful they’ll be returned soon.



Workmen at Stevens’ rural property outside the northern Pennsylvania town of Wyalusing have been busy the past few months, erecting a gabled building with gray siding and a white door. It resembles an oversized shed, or a smaller version of Stevens’ detached garage.


In reality, it’s a mausoleum that Stevens intends as the final resting place of her husband of nearly 60 years, James Stevens, and her twin, June Stevens. And authorities have told her it’s the only way she can get them back.

So there you go. Jean Stevens will be re-united with her dead husband and sister, forevermore.

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.


Cairo’s City of the Dead (…and Living) Face Eviction

Razing the City of the Dead to Breathe New Life into Cairo
Matt Bradley, The National, Abu Dhabi (June 18, 2009)

“Living around the Dead Helps Me See How We Will End Up. It Makes Me Feel Closer to God”
Matt Bradley, The National, Abu Dhabi (June 18, 2009)

Imagine you and all your neighbors being evicted from your neighborhood, except your neighborhood is a cemetery. And you’re not dead.

An astonishing estimated 100,000 to 120,000 Cairenes live among the centuries-old tombs and on graves in the four-mile City of the Dead, locally known simply as el’arafa (“the cemetery”). As part of city revitalization initiatives, the Egyptian government plans to turn out the residents—living and dead alike—to convert the cemetery into a park to increase Cairo’s public green space.

Creative Commons Flickr image by 10 Ninjas Steve
Creative Commons Flickr image by 10 Ninjas Steve

Some live in the cemetery to be near dead ancestors. In a city with severe housing shortages, however, most cemetery residents have no where else to go. The rent is nonexistent and the homes are comparatively larger, quieter and more private than other cheap, urban housing. Despite a few advantages to the unusual location, the residents, who include newcomers to the city looking for work as well as graduates from prestigious universities, suffer the social stigma of dwelling among the dead. “People living in the city think we’re twisted or sick for living with the dead. But I have gotten used to it. It’s my home,” says one woman.

Some are more than happy to accept the ministry’s offer of relocated housing, presumably with the running water and electricity that many cemetery homes lack. Others are not so keen. Says one elderly woman, living in a one-room flat attached to a mausoleum, “Of course I would say no. We’ve been living here for years. It’s a quiet and nice area. Why would they want to move us?”

Other Resources:

Tomb with a View by Hugh Levinson (BBC)

Cities of the Dead by Heba Fatteen Bizzari (Tour Egypt)

City of the Dead: a History of Cairo’s Cemetery Communities
by Jeffrey A. Nedoroscik (1997, Westport, Conn: Bergin & Garvey) Google BooksAmazon
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