Last week saw the conclusion of the case of Kaling Wald, a Hamilton, Ontario woman who faced legal troubles after letting her dead husband’s body remain locked in the couple’s spare bedroom for six months after he died there last year. By all accounts, Kaling had a sincere religious belief that her husband Peter Wald would return from the dead. So sincere in fact, that when the 53 year old died at home in March of 2013, she left him on his deathbed to rot and didn’t tell anyone except the couple’s five children aged 11 to 22 and their seven adult roommates. What Kaling was less certain of was when Peter would return from the dead. Not wanting to take any chances, she was in it for the long haul and did not want the kids seeing what advanced decomposition looks and smells like in the meantime. So she padlocked the bedroom and placed duct tape on the air vents for good measure. Six months later in September of 2013, the home went into foreclosure. When the sheriff came by, he found the body in such a decomposed state that it couldn’t be identified by photograph.
The city’s hometown paper had a field day with this story. An article in The Hamilton Spectator written shortly after the discovery of the body bears the headline: “How does a man lie dead in a house for months on end?” Of course, the question was not being asked in the literal sense. The Spectator wasn’t looking to publish an article detailing how corpse decomposition plays out in a home environment. What the author was likely trying to do was express a bit of subtle outrage. How dare this woman leave her husband’s body to rot in a bedroom? Why did nobody intervene to stop this atrocity? Not everyone shared this restraint in expressing their views however. In an apparent act of vandalism, Peter’s minivan was damaged after the news came out. Even PETA has gotten in on the action with a local billboard referencing the story.
There’s no denying that there is a certain ickiness to the sight and smell of a decomposing body. When I asked Josh Slocum, Executive Director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance -a watchdog group for the funeral industry similar to Consumer Reports– about what a body left on a bed in a room with no ventilation might look like a few months later, his response was “in a word: ‘unpleasant’”. He gave the example of a dead animal left under a porch to aid me further in visualizing the spectacle. He also pointed out that bodily fluids can be highly damaging to furniture and flooring. The smell of a dead human is nearly impossible to remove from a room once the fluids start seeping into the floor (in cars he says the smell is basically impossible to remove).
Be that as it may, we are still talking about property damage. In the home of a stranger no less. With certain rare exceptions (a 53 year old diabetic who died at home not typically being one), a dead body is not a health risk to anyone. Per the coroner that examined Peter Wald’s remains: “There was nothing in the examination that would suggest criminal activity or public health concerns”. There’s a million ways in which someone might cause harm to the inside of their house. Would that lead a random reasonable person to become angry enough to smash their car window? Would any editor of a newspaper commission the writing of several articles about it? I doubt that very much. Of course, this is not to say that corpses ought to be fair game for everyone’s whims. For example, it certainly makes sense to be respectful of the feelings of family and friends of the deceased when making final arrangements and to adhere to any legal directives the person made while living. However, every indication is that the residents of the Wald household were all on board with the arrangement, so none of that would appear to apply here.
As if all these events weren’t traumatic and stressful enough for the family, the following January the police came and arrested Kaling Wald. There was never any evidence of foul play with regards to her husband’s death, but the prosecutor decided that charging her with “neglect of duty regarding a dead body and offering an indignity to a body” under section 182 of Canada’s criminal code would be appropriate. While the charges are fairly rare, the maximum punishment of five years imprisonment for this victimless act is on par with possession of child pornography. It should be noted that there are many jurisdictions here in the US that share this obsession with respecting the sensibilities of cadavers. Slocum informed me that Massachusetts forbids funeral directors from using “profane, indecent or obscene language” in the presence of the dead.
Almost a year later, this bizarre and unwarranted legal exercise looks like it has come to an end. Per the National Post:
Ms. Wald pleaded guilty on Monday to failing to notify authorities of his death from disease — an offence under the Coroner’s Act….Those charges were withdrawn in the “11th hour,” and replaced with the Coroner’s Act charge, Ms. Wald’s lawyer Peter Boushy said.
Ms. Wald was sentenced to 18 months probation with counselling from a Christian counsellor.
Kaling – who has no past criminal record – had her sentence suspended and was put on 18 months of probation and ordered to seek counseling around the “public health concerns” of the incident.
“Your belief that your husband would resurrect is not an issue,” Superior Court Justice Marjoh Agro said at her plea Monday.
“This is not about your religious beliefs. It is about your safety, the safety of your children and the safety of the community at large.”
Kaling Wald’s conviction that a her husband’s dead body must be locked up in a room for resurrection that will never happen is deeply misguided. However, nobody is really being injured by this corpse’s decomposition any more than they are by the millions of other corpses decomposing in other places. But yet people will laugh at her and say Of course he’s not coming back, he’s dead!
As a society though, have we really come to terms with all the implications of what “he’s dead” actually entails with regard to a human body? It does not appear that we have. If we did, then “offer[ing] any indignity to a dead human body or human remains” wouldn’t be the legal basis for potentially sending someone to prison in an industrialized country. The sight of Peter Wald’s corpse rotting on his bed might be be unseemly to most onlookers. But is he in any position to have an opinion on the matter? Of course not. He’s dead. The only parties that have feelings that can or should be taken into account are those of his living family members.
At the end of the day, which is causing the greater harm here: Kaling Wald’s mistaken belief in resurrection? Or the notion of protecting dead bodies from the “indignities” that the living might inflict upon them?