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Elderly widow stores corpses of husband, twin sister

WYALUSING, Pa. - 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 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 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.

Jean Stevens, seeming more grandmother than ghoul, holds little back as she describes what happened outside this town in northern Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains.

Sad yet sweet

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 in her early 20s, and James in his Army uniform. It was taken after their 1942 marriage. After his service in World War II, James worked at a General Electric Corp. plant in upstate Liverpool, then as an auto mechanic. He succumbed to Parkinson's disease on May 21, 1999.

Next to that there is a small color snapshot of Jean and June when they were in their late 80s. In many ways, Jean shared a closer bond with her twin than with her husband.

Though June lived in West Hartford, Conn., they phoned 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, and on Oct. 3, she 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."

Her sister's keeper

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 June's favorite expensive perfume.

"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."

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 it 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."

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