Talking to the Dead, Directly

July 23, 2010

Unlike those who seek out mediums—supposed intermediaries between living people and their dead loved ones on the Other Side—Jean Stevens has a more direct means of contact. The 91-year-old woman of Wyalusing, Pa., had the corpses of her husband and twin sister dug up so she could keep them at home and talk to them.

The story surfaced in June 2010 when state police discovered the embalmed body of James Stevens on a sofa in Mrs. Stevens’ garage and that of her sister June on another sofa in a spare room. Each had been disinterred just after burial. The local district attorney said that if Mrs. Stevens installs an above-ground crypt on the property, the confiscated corpses will be returned to her.

Mrs. Stevens gave two reasons for the disinterment. Because she is claustrophobic, she explained to the Associated Press, she hated to think of her loved ones confined in caskets under ground. Moreover, she said she wanted to look at and talk to them.

“I think that when you put them in the [ground], that’s goodbye, goodbye,” she stated. Referring to the way she treated her sister’s corpse—dressing it in her “best housecoat” and spraying it with her favorite perfume—she said, “In this way I could touch her and look at her and talk to her. I’d go in, and I’d talk, and I’d forget. 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 up all the time.”

Likewise, with her husband’s body—dressed in a dark suit with a white shirt and blue tie—she stated: “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.’ Well, I felt differently about death.” (See Michael Rubinkam, “Woman Will Be Allowed to Keep Corpses,” The Buffalo News , July 7, 2010.)

Although Mrs. Stevens says she talked to her deceased relatives, she did not say she received messages back. She simply engaged in a fantasy that comforted her, and she was spared being victimized by deceptions like those perpetrated during the heyday of “physical mediumship.” Then in dark-room séances, “spirits” produced writings on states, whispered through tin trumpets, and even “materialized” in luminous chiffon, among other trick manifestations. Today, so-called psychic mediums like John Edward pretend to receive messages from the dead, but is their “mental mediumship” any more successful than the fake offerings of yesteryear?

The urge to communicate with the dead can be powerful. As a boy when my grandmother died, I wanted very much for her still to be with me, and I could almost imagine her presence. I recall Carl Sagan saying once how he wished he could talk to his dead parents—even once a year to tell them how the grandkids were doing. He said this somewhat lightheartedly but meant it very seriously. We can appreciate the poignancy of such emotions while respectfully urging the bereaved to obtain closure based on reality rather than on the offerings—as it seems—of so many fantasy-prone mediums and even outright charlatans.