WYALUSING, Pa. (AP) — The 91-year-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 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 a singularly 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 last October. But their bodies are with the Bradford County coroner now, off-limits to the woman who loved them best.
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.
She knows what people must think of her. But she had her reasons, and they are complicated, a bit sad, and in their own peculiar way, sweet.
Dressed smartly in a light blue shirt and khaki skirt, silver hoops in her ears, her white hair swept back and her brown eyes clear and sharp, she offers a visitor a slice of pie, then casts a knowing look when it’s declined. “You’re afraid I’ll poison you,” she says.
On a highboy in the corner of the dining room rests a handsome, black-and-white portrait of Jean, then a stunner in her early 20s, and James, clad in his Army uniform. It was taken after their 1942 marriage but before his service in World War II, in which he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, James worked at a General Electric Corp. plant in Liverpool, N.Y., then as an auto mechanic. He succumbed to Parkinson’s disease on May 21, 1999.
Next to that photo there is a smaller color snapshot of Jean and June, taken when they were in their late 80s.
In many ways, Jean shared a closer bond with her twin than her husband.
Though June lived more than 200 miles away in West Hartford, Conn., they talked by phone several times a week, and June wrote often. The twins — who, as it happened, married brothers — were honored guests at the 70th reunion of the Camptown High School Class of 1937.
Then, last year, June was diagnosed with cancer. She was in a lot of pain when Jean came to visit. The sisters shared a bed, and Jean rubbed her back. “I’m real glad you’re here,” June said.
On Oct. 3, June 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. Jean sprayed her with expensive perfume that was June’s 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. James, who had been laid to rest in a nearby cemetery, wore a dark suit, white shirt and blue knitted tie.
“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. “Is that the grand finale?” But then she gets up at night and gazes at the stars in the sky and the deer in the fields, and she thinks, “There must be somebody who created this. It didn’t come up like mushrooms.”
So she is ambivalent about God and the afterlife. “I don’t always go to church, but I want to believe,” Stevens 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 because they fear that death is truly the end.
For them, “death doesn’t exist,” she said. “They deny death.”
Stevens, she said, “came up with a very extreme expression of it. She got her bodies back, and she felt fulfilled by having them at home. 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; she was horrified that the bodies of her loved ones would spend eternity in a casket in the ground. “That’s suffocation to me, even though you aren’t breathing,” she said.
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 grocery shopping either didn’t know or didn’t tell. Otherwise forthcoming, Stevens is vague when asked about who exhumed the bodies and who knew of her odd living arrangement. She blames a relative of her late husband’s for calling the authorities about the corpses.
“I think that is dirty, rotten,” she said.
State police — who haven’t yet released the identities of those who retrieved the bodies — will soon present their findings to Bradford County District Attorney Daniel Barrett. A decision on charges is expected in a few weeks.
Barrett said shortly after the bodies were discovered that authorities were looking into possible violations including misdemeanor abuse of a corpse. He also said violations of state health code provisions regulating how bodies must be disinterred are punishable as criminal offenses.
Stevens has talked extensively with both the police and Bradford County Coroner Tom Carman, who calls it a “very, very bizarre case.”
But the coroner has nothing but kind things to say about the woman at the center of it.
“I got quite an education, to say the least. She’s 100 percent cooperative — and a pleasure to talk to,” Carman said. “But as far as her psyche, I’ll leave that to the experts.”