The Corpse Who Came To Stay
Stone Willie is better off dead

READING, Pa. -- In life, he was a vagrant drunk who hung himself in a jail cell after being arrested for a crime long since forgotten. In death, he was nicknamed "Stone Willie," and, generations after his demise in 1895, he has been adopted as the city's favorite corpse.

See also...
... by Pamela Rohland
... in the Whoa! section
... from September 30, 1999

When no grieving relatives claimed the body of an incarcerated drifter who appeared to be in his late 20s and went by the alias James Penn, a Reading funeral director stepped forward to take possession. Theo C. Auman Sr. was eager to try out his experimental formula for preserving the dead -- so eager, in fact, that he was a bit heavy-handed with the embalming fluid. Auman applied a powerful dose of the concoction, exploding the corpse's cells and virtually mummifying him.

But rather than bury his mistake, the funeral director affectionately dubbed the hardened corpse "Stone Willie" and simply kept him around, hoping that relatives might some day show up and claim the body.

Auman's descendents are still waiting.

While he may have lacked the warmth of human companionship during life, death has been anything but lonely for Stone Willie. For more than a century he has resided in a spacious second-floor room at the Auman Funeral Home, where anyone who wanted to pay their respects could do so.

"It's like the way people react to the great mummies of Egypt," says Vanessa Wagner, a secretary at the funeral parlor. "People are fascinated and want to know what he looks like -- even funeral directors."

Over the decades, scores of Reading residents have stopped by the room with pale green walls and antique furniture where Stone Willie is tucked into a handsome walnut casket. Dark blue pajamas and a smoking jacket, which are changed every couple of years, set off his skin, which has darkened from dehydration. The funeral parlor's former general manager, Steve Sonoski, says staffers are not disconcerted by Stone Willie's presence.

"It's not creepy. He's part of us," says Sonoski, adding that staffers who visit the room may make a comment or two to the body.

While Stone Willie may be setting some sort of record, John Eirkson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association in Harrisburg, said it is not unusual for embalmed bodies to remain well preserved for ages. "I've heard of remains that have been exhumed after eight or 10 years and, except for a little mold around the nose, they could be on display again and no one would know the difference," Erickson says.

Despite his popularity, Stone Willie's visiting privileges were suspended about six years ago when SCI, a Houston, Texas-based funeral corporation, purchased the business from Auman's grandson, Theo C. Auman III. The auslanders did not seem to find the public display of a century-old corpse as entertaining as Reading residents.

"There's the issue of dignity," Sonoski explains. "There's also a liability issue." According to Erikson, Stone Wille may be breaking Pennsylvania law by not submitting to burial. The state funeral law, adopted in the 1940s, requires remains to be disposed of within a "reasonable time." Is remaining unburied for 104 years overstaying your welcome?

Because of the questions swirling around Stone Willie, the door to his sanctuary has been permanently closed to the public, prompting rumors that, unthinkable as it seems, he might actually be buried. Citizens have called the funeral parlor to express their dismay at the idea. However, according to Sonoski, no burial plans have been made…yet.

But eventually, Stone Willie will have to face the inevitable. When might that happen? The answer about the fate of the 19th-century corpse is typically late-20th-century: Corporate officials will decide.

Pamela Rohland is a writer whose work appears regularly in a variety of national and regional publications.