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Getting Away With Murder

It was one of the most bizarre stories ever to hit the headlines, involving a secret murder, a DIY mummy and a stone frog. But if you look more closely, the story tells us a lot about society’s attitudes to death and burial.

It began when a 74-year-old woman called Leigh Ann Sabine passed away after living for many years in a small village called Beddau in south Wales. She had been well-known in the village for her tall stories about the adventures she had had and the things she had achieved. She had once had dreams of showbiz stardom and had shared a stage with the famous singer Tom Jones. Stardom never came, but towards the end of her life she began to insist that people would be talking about her when she had gone.

When she was asked why, she said: “Because of the body in the bag.” People thought she was referring to a medical skeleton she kept at her house, well-wrapped in plastic and roofing felt. She said it was a souvenir of her days as a nurse and one day she asked a friend to help her move it from her garden shed to the attic. Not long afterwards, she passed away and the friend decided to take a closer look at the skeleton. Maybe she could use it for a practical joke.

When she began unwrapping it, she soon realized that it wasn’t a skeleton but a mummy. There was a real body under the plastic, chemically preserved by being sealed off from the air and attack by insects. Whose body was it and what had happened? It didn’t take long to find out. Leigh Sabine’s husband John, a veteran of the Korean war, had last been seen in the village in 1997. She said he had run away with another woman.

In fact, she had murdered him, cracking his skull with a heavy stone frog before wrapping his body in many layers of plastic and roofing felt. Then she had left it in the garden shed, year after year, while she continued to draw her husband’s pension and enjoy her life in the village. She even confessed what she had done in a phone call to a friend, saying that she had got sick of her husband and killed him, but the friend dismissed it as a joke.

It wasn’t. Nor was the discovery of the body. John Sabine had a son by an earlier marriage and the son was horrified to find out what had happened to his father. It’s easy to understand why. Murder is a terrible thing, but the crime was made worse in this case by the fact that the body of the victim lay unburied for so long. That’s what put the story in the headlines: it was about a violation of a basic principle of all human cultures. Bodies should be treated with respect, not left in a garden shed, wrapped in plastic, then carried upstairs to the attic.

And how did Leigh Sabine live for so long not just with the knowledge of what she had done, but with the actual body? Perhaps it was part of her cunning. Many murderers are caught when they try to dispose of the body. She kept it close at hand, making sure that no-one stumbled across it accidentally. Her plan worked and her prediction came true: she was certainly talked about when she was gone. She had done something both unusual and shocking. Who would want the same thing to happen to one of their friends or relatives? We want proper funerals and a decent burial or a clean cremation. Leigh Sabine denied that to her husband and hit the headlines around the world.