It depends on where you live.
After her older sister died in late 2015, Elizabeth Freise left the body to rot in the Oregon home they shared for five months.
The decomposing corpse went undiscovered until April of last year, when Freise fell on the front porch and required medical attention. That's when emergency responders made a startling discovery: Christine Freise, 63, had died of natural causes and been left to rot in a bed in the home filled with heaps of garbage, apparently since November 2015.
But while Freise's failure to report her sister's dead body may have been shocking, it wasn't against the law.
In some states across America, there is no statute in place requiring regular people report dead bodies, especially if there's no indication a crime took place. Although local laws may obligate certain officials such as police to report deaths, and others may ban the general public from abusing corpses, there remains something of a loophole in place, depending on where you live, if a corpse is decomposing in your own home.
Of course, plenty of states do have laws that require people to report deaths within a certain timeframe. And some ban citizens from treating corpses in ways that might, as Kentucky law describes it, "outrage ordinary family sensibilities." Last year in Pennsylvania, for example, a man was convicted of abusing of a corpse when his girlfriend overdosed in their apartment and cops only found out after a neighbor's complaint about the smell forced him to call 911.
But in Oregon, John Hummel, the Deschutes County district attorney, says that even if the manner in which Elizabeth Freise handled her sister's death may have been appalling, it wasn't illegal. Freise could not be reached for comment for this story.
Hummel adds that Oregon has laws in place that dictate what you can't do to a corpse—such as chopping it up and moving it. Community standards or a basic sense of decency, on the other hand, are often the only thing determining how people care for loved ones after they die; at a minimum, that generally means disposing of their remains.
"If you discover a corpse, you don't have to do anything," Hummel tells me of his state. "Some people might say that that's wrong, that the law should require that, but the law doesn't require that."
That can leave family members to cope with horrifying scenarios. In Michigan, Tiffany Jager learned the shortcomings of her own state's laws when she discovered her mother's body about five days after she overdosed in the Grand Rapids apartment she shared with her boyfriend in 2011.
Jager says she hadn't been able to get in touch with her mother, who struggled with substance abuse issues. After waiting several days, she asked the landlord of the apartment complex for a spare key to get inside.
Naturally, she was mortified by what she found.
Jager's mother's boyfriend was passed out in a bedroom, with the door to the second bedroom covered with a blanket and a towel jammed into the bottom of the door to seal the crack. Her mother had apparently overdosed there days earlier, but her boyfriend continued using drugs in the apartment and didn't report it, according to Jager.
"This is my mother, no matter if she was a drug addict or not, the way she was left was less than a dog," she tells me.
Jager was stricken when her mother's boyfriend wasn't charged with a crime. But at the time, no law was in place requiring prompt reporting of deaths. "To find out that your loved one is dead is one thing," she says. "And to find out that you didn't know is another."
In response to the incident, Tonya Schuitmaker, a Michigan state senator, introduced a bill the same year to fine residents who fail to report dead bodies, which ended up becoming law. Under the statute, people who neglect to report the deceased face up to year in prison and a $1,000 fine. That penalty increases up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine if they deliberately try to conceal the corpse.
"It wasn't a crime to report the dead body, which kind of defies logic," Schuitmaker recalls in an interview. "And it's unfortunate that you have to have such a law because you think it's common sense."
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Prosecutors in Massachusetts are currently grappling with a similar scenario. Seventy-four-year-old Lynda Waldman failed to report the death of her younger sister, Hope Wheaton, who decomposed in their home for about a year and a half before being discovered this past December.
"We always asked where she was," Harriet Allen, a neighbor and longtime friend of Wheaton's, told the Boston Globe. "She would ignore it."
In December, the sisters' cousin came to visit and found Wheaton, who was long dead. Her remains had been decaying on the floor under the kitchen table amidst piles of stuff, with authorities estimating she had been there since the summer of 2015.
The older sister has yet to face charges, and the Norfolk district attorney's office spokesman David Traub told me police are still investigating whether a crime has been committed. Waldman could not be reached for comment.
Of course, even if it's not required by your own state's laws, experts generally concur that you should report a dead body if you find one. "Whatever the case might be, the sooner the better," says Gary Watts of the International Association of Coroners & Medical Examiners.
Watts, who works as a coroner in South Carolina, says most states have laws to require people to report dead bodies within a certain period of time. And the more time that passes after someone dies, the harder it becomes to investigate whether a crime has been committed.
This January in Mississippi, a state lawmaker introduced a bill that would fine people $50 if they stumble on a dead body and don't tell authorities about it in a "timely manner." The Clarion-Ledger, a local news outlet, reported that a woman heading to a workout class had ended up calling 911 when she saw a body lying near an intersection near Jackson State University.
Which is to say most people don't need a law to compel them to report corpses.
"I think 99.9 percent of people's natural inclination is to call the police or call a funeral director or call somebody to report a death," says Scott Gilligan, an attorney with the National Funeral Directors Association.
After all, once a loved one has died, there are various legal and financial matters at stake, such as collecting insurance, ending Social Security payments, and canceling bank accounts. Oh, and the smell, too.
"We're always surprised when somebody doesn't immediately report it," Gilligan says.
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