With corpses kept in her home, fam­ily is gone but not for­got­ten

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Michael Ru­binkam

WYALUS­ING, Pa. — The 91year-old widow lived by her­self in a tum­ble­down house on a des­o­late coun­try road. But she wasn’t alone, not re­ally, not as long as she could visit her hus­band and twin sis­ter.

No mat­ter that they were al­ready dead. Jean Stevens sim­ply had their em­balmed corpses dug up and stored them at her house — in the case of her late hus­band, for more than a decade — tend­ing to the re­mains as best she could un­til po­lice were fi­nally tipped off last month. Much to her dis­may. “Death is very hard for me to take,” Stevens told an in­ter­viewer.

As state po­lice fin­ish their in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the macabre case — no charges have been filed — Stevens wishes she could be re­united with James Stevens, her hus­band of nearly 60 years who died in 1999, and June Stevens, the twin who died in Oc­to­ber. But their bod­ies are with the Brad­ford County coro­ner now.

From time to time, sto­ries of ex­humed bod­ies are re­ported, but rarely do those in­volved of­fer an ex­pla­na­tion. Jean Stevens, seem­ing more grand­mother than ghoul, holds lit­tle back as she de­scribes what hap­pened out­side this small town in north­ern Penn­syl­va­nia’s End­less Moun­tains.

James Stevens died of Parkin­son’s dis­ease on May 21, 1999, and was buried in a nearby ceme­tery.

June Stevens, who had been mar­ried to James’ brother, was di­ag­nosed with can­cer last sum­mer. She was in a lot of pain when Stevens came to visit. On Oct. 3, June Stevens died. She was buried in her sis­ter’s back­yard — but not for long.

“I think when you put them in the (ground), that’s good­bye, good­bye,” Stevens said. “In this way, I could touch her and look at her and talk to her.”

She kept her sis­ter, who was dressed in her “best house­coat,” on an old couch in a spare room off the bed­room. Stevens sprayed her with ex­pen­sive per­fume that was June Stevens’ fa­vorite.

“I’d go in, and I’d talk, and I’d for­get,” Stevens said. “I put glasses on her. When I put the glasses on, it made all the dif­fer­ence in the world. I would fix her up. I’d fix her face up all the time.”

She of­fered a sim­i­lar ra­tio­nale for keep­ing her hus­band on a couch in the de­tached garage.

“I could see him, I could look at him, I could touch him. Now, some peo­ple have a ter­ri­ble feel­ing; they say, ‘Why do you want to look at a dead per­son? Oh, my gra­cious,’ ” she said.

“Well, I felt dif­fer­ently about death.”

Part of her wor­ries: that af­ter death, there’s … noth­ing. She is am­biva­lent about God and the af­ter­life.

“I don’t al­ways go to church, but I want to be­lieve,” Stevens Jean Stevens, 91, holds a photo of her­self and her hus­band, James. He died in 1999, and she kept his ex­humed corpse and that of her sis­ter, June Stevens, at left, in their home. said.

Dr. Helen Lavret­sky, a psy­chi­a­try pro­fes­sor at UCLA who re­searches how the el­derly view death and dy­ing, said peo­ple who aren’t par­tic­u­larly spir­i­tual or re­li­gious of­ten have a dif­fi­cult time with death. For them, “death doesn’t ex­ist,” she said. “They deny death.”

Stevens, she said, “came up with a very ex­treme ex­pres­sion of it. … She’s beat­ing death by bring­ing them back.”

There was an­other rea­son that Stevens wanted them above ground.

She is se­verely claus­tro­pho­bic and so was her sis­ter. So, she said, she had them dug up, both within days of burial.

She man­aged to es­cape de­tec­tion for a long time. The neigh­bors who mowed her lawn and took her shop­ping ei­ther didn’t know or didn’t tell. Stevens is vague when asked about who ex­humed the bod­ies. She blames a rel­a­tive of her late hus­band’s for call­ing the au­thor­i­ties.

“I think that is dirty, rot­ten,” she said.

Michael Ru­binkam pho­tos

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