The Man Who Was Buried in Paperwork

In 1992, a 37-year-old man named Reliu Constantin left Romania for Turkey, hoping to find work to support his wife and daughter back home. He found employment as a cook and was able to return to Romania every few months — but the time separated took a toll on his family. As he told the Associated Press, when he returned in 1995, he discovered that his wife had been unfaithful. By 1999, he made up his mind: he’d remain in Turkey, never to return.

For the next nineteen years, his plan worked out fine. But in 2018, Turkish officials realized that Constantin’s immigration documents had expired. He was living there without permission, so Turkey deported him back to Romania. And that’s when he found out the bad news, as he told the New York Times:

“At the airport in Bucharest, I was surrounded by customs officials. They said, ‘You’re dead,’” he recalled with disbelief. “I thought they were joking. I was the only one who didn’t know. The people who escorted me off the plane knew, everyone knew except me.”

That wasn’t a threat, though — the Romanian customs officials weren’t about to execute Constantin for emigrating to Turkey. It was a simple statement of fact. Officially, as far as Romania was concerned, the man in front of them was legally dead and had been since 2003.

When Constantin left Romania in 1999, he also left his marriage in limbo — while separated, the couple was still legally married, and his wife didn’t have a way of forcing a divorce. As the years ticked by, the odds of him returning so she could end the marriage dwindled. But his lack of communication gave her a way out. According to the Guardian, his wife went to court seeking a death certificate, under the assumption that Constantin had died in the August 1999 earthquake which claimed more than 17,000 lives. In 2016, the court granted that request — effective 2003, when Constantin’s Romanian passport expired — which allowed the former Mrs. Constantin to have the marriage annulled.

Constantin’s death, though, didn’t affect him — not until he was deported, at least. And then, it’s an easy fix, right? Just show up to court and ask that you, very clearly not dead, be declared alive. But… that’s not what happened. Instead, the court denied his motion, noting that the window to appeal such a decision had long passed. Reliu Constantin, the man standing in front of the judge, heart beating and brain thinking, was to remain legally dead.

Thankfully for Constantin, a media firestorm ensued — dozens of publications wrote about his absurd case of legal limbo. In early July, Romanian courts agreed to reinstate his life. Legally speaking.

Bonus fact: While legally dead, Constantin couldn’t work — as the Times reported in the above-linked article, “he [couldn’t] get work without a valid ID.” But should that matter? Not according to another Romanian court, which handed down a similarly odd ruling just a few days after the ruling declaring that Constantin had to remain dead. In 2017, a man named Valerian Vasiliu had been caught speeding and had his licensed revoked, but went to court to have it reinstated. Vasiliu won his case but lost in the greater lottery of life, dying a few days later. But that didn’t stop the police from appealed that ruling. In 2018, the court heard that appeal and found in favor of the late Vasiliu, and in the words of the Guardian, “ruled that a dead man can have his driving license back.”

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