The Vultures are Coming—Air Burials in Indiana?
In Lafayette, Indiana, Illa Solomon lived with the corpse of her 88-year-old husband, Gerald “Scooter” Gavan for nine months without reporting the death. Her aim was to fulfill her husband’s request for an air burial. This supposedly coveted air burial is an ancient practice of Tibetan Buddhists where birds slowly devour a corpse.
In February 2013, Solomon purchased the house next door to her house. Though Solomon claimed Gavan helped her renovate the house through the winter months, the coroner found Gavan was actually dead since summer. Solomon initially claimed her husband had been dead only five days before officers found the severely decomposed corpse, but eventually Gavan confessed the body had been decaying for nine months. She even admitted the smell of the decomposing body was so bad she could no longer live in her home with it. Hence, she bought the neighboring house and would sleep next door after returning each night to open the side door in hopes that birds would fly in and feed on her husband. When explaining her decision, Solomon stated, “That's kind of a little thing, isn't it? Keep a secret and open the door?" She said, "All he wanted me to do was just keep his secret and open the door.”
Solomon was, at the time of her husband’s death, unaware Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center studies scavenger birds, like vultures, as they feed on donated human bodies. She now says it is her goal to get her late husband’s remains to the Texas body farm. She explained, “I do hope that if somebody else gets put in the same situation I got put into, they'll know about the body farm and the body ranch, so they'll know where to go.”
Of course, in failing to report her husband’s death to authorities, Solomon violated state law. In Indiana, it is a misdemeanor to fail to report a dead body and a misdemeanor for the unlawful disposal of a dead body. Solomon’s defense was, “I know I did commit failure to report and that is a crime. I don't know if they'll charge me with failure to report or not.” In the end, Solomon’s lack of knowledge about the law did not save her. She pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of failing to report a dead body and unlawful disposal.
If Solomon was truly unaware of her legal obligation to report her husband’s death, it seems unfortunate she was punished for her lack of awareness. Additionally, her explanation that she was only doing something small to carry out the wishes of her husband suggests the law may be too restrictive. Why shouldn’t Gavan be able to devote his body to an air burial, especially if his wife was willing to give up their entire home during the process? It appears the only burden the air burial created was the burden on Solomon.
Interestingly, upon investigation into potential foul play on Solomon’s part, she produced her husband’s last will and testament. The document stated that Gavan, an 88-year-old WWII veteran, wanted a “traditional burial.” Solomon claimed this document and the phrase “traditional burial” tipped her off that her late husband wanted the air burial. She specifically alleged the documents show that her husband wanted to be eaten by birds in India. Solomon’s dogged interpretation of Gavan’s wishes seems to have something missing. Was she mentally addled by her husband’s passing? Was she engaged in foul play? Or did Solomon really just misinterpret her husband’s will the way he wanted? So perhaps Indiana’s law for reporting human passing is the best way to avoid such questions.