Fear of dying alone is among the top fears about death, topped only by dying alone undiscovered for days, weeks, or even years, only to be eventually found, Bridget Jones-style, half-eaten by Alsatians. Even worse? When there is no one to claim what's left.
It's hard to imagine how things reach this tragic point. Most of us have friends, family, and loved ones we would expect would find us, if we died alone, in a matter of minutes, or hours, at most. If not, then coworkers or neighbors would surely check in within a day or two. And if all else fails, at the very least, some bill collectors would likely sniff around our doors eventually looking for us. But for a number of people — and a no doubt increasing number given the isolated age we live in — there are somehow no such checks and balances in place.
A few years ago, a coroner in the UK remarked that there was an increase in the elderly dying alone undiscovered for some time, and called it "a sad reflection on the society that we live in that elderly people who live alone, and die alone, are only discovered when neighbours realise that there is a bad smell coming from the property."
And you've read the stories. A 70-something woman, Anne Leitrim, wasn't found until six years after her death because her car had disappeared and neighbors thought she'd moved. Joyce Carol Vincent, 38, wasn't discovered for two years postmortem, then surrounded by the Christmas presents she'd been wrapping while watching television.
The eventual discovery of these tragic deaths — called kodokushi in Japanese for "lonely death" — only occur after a bizarre set of missed cues add up. Take Pia Farrenkopf, a Michigan woman in her late 40's who was found six years after her death, in a mummified state. According to reports, it was a "perfect storm" of slipping through the cracks. From a Gawker post on the events:
She lived alone, a neighbor mowed her lawn every so often, her mail was returned to senders or sent to a P.O. Box, and all of her bills, including her mortgage payments, were automatically withdrawn from her bank account each month.
"[Her yard] was pretty manicured," a neighbor told the Detroit Free Press. "There was no indication there was a body in there, at all."
When the approximately $54,000 in her savings account ran out, her home was foreclosed on by her bank, who sent a contractor to evaluate the property. That's when her body was found.
Farrenkopf was believed to be murdered — which at least explains some of the circumstances of her disappearance, yet eases the average person's fears of such things happening approximately zero percent. Proof of this is in a recent Reddit query asking, Forever alone Redditors: If you were to suddenly die in your sleep at home, how long would it take for people to start looking for you?
BRiANtastyCAKEZ wrote what many of us have probably cringed at the thought of at some point or another: "My family would probably wonder why I wasnt at Thanksgiving, fuck they might not notice till Christmas."
This scenario is just one of a few reasons people aren't discovered quickly upon passing, according a site that polled British folk on their biggest death fears (Hint: The top one is dying alone). They are:
- Children live far away
- Live alone
- Physical/mental impairment
- Rural area
- Loner type/small social network
And like any condition only made worse by Googling, the stories don't stop. A NYT piece on fear of dying alone merely produced more worst-case scenarios, like:
In February, a 45-year-old woman and her mentally disabled four-year-old son were discovered dead in their Tokyo apartment. Authorities believe the mother passed away from a stroke a month or two previously, and the boy, emaciated when recovered, had subsequently starved to death. Last month, an 87-year-old woman living in a private apartment in a retirement complex was found collapsed and dead in her bathroom an estimated one week after her demise.
Of course, most people are discovered eventually. Then there's the clean up — its own eery next level of death-related concern, particularly when the death is the result of a crime. And next is perhaps, the greatest tragedy of all: When you are found eventually but there is no one to claim your body.
That was the subject of a fascinating, highly rated, deeply unsettling (and graphic) documentary about such cases in Los Angeles County a few years ago called A Certain Kind of Death and a recent piece in the LA Times about the current epidemic, where some 1,400 unclaimed cremated bodies are currently set to be buried this December.
According to reporter Jon Schleuss, that includes "137 babies. 2 children. 853 men. 436 women." Schleuss writes:
They die in hospitals in Torrance, in nursing homes in Long Beach, on the street in Los Angeles.
About six bodies arrive each day at L.A. County's cemetery in Boyle Heights. There, Albert Gaskin gives each body a round metal tag with a cremation number.
From there, they are entered into a ledger, the location of death is noted, and the body is assigned a coroner case number. Then, the coroner tries to identify the body, and if so, contact the next of kin — they scour the person's home or apartment, looking for any information about family from bills, wills, or phone books. They ask neighbors. Places of employment. They can search, according to the documentary, for months looking for a relative until they hit a wall. Unclaimed bodies are not all merely unidentified bodies, as might be the case sometimes with the homeless or murder victims. It's not always that there are no known relatives, either.
Sometimes, those relatives are located, they just don't have the money to claim the body and handle the burial. That was the case for John Wheelock, a 65-year-old Oregon man who died of a heart attack on a train trip to Los Angeles. Son Aaron told the Times:
"It came at a horrible time," said his son Aaron Wheelock, who couldn't afford to come get his father's ashes. The county wouldn't ship them to his home in Idaho, he said.
If relatives can be found, they are notified by the morgue or the coroner that their loved one's body is available for pickup by a mortuary. If a family can't afford the mortuary fees, the county handles cremation.
The cost is typically $352 for a case handled by the coroner and $466 for others. Although that must be paid before the ashes can be taken, in some cases a family can ask a county supervisor to waive the fee.
Some families simply don't want to pick up relatives, said Joyce Kato, an investigator at the Los Angeles County coroner's office.
"We see that more and more every year," she said. "They don't even feel that they're obligated to make arrangements for a long-lost sibling."
In some cases, Kato said, family members are just interested in the death certificate, which gives them access to property, bank accounts and life insurance.
If no relatives are found, or no interested relatives are found, the county cremates the body and then buries the ashes alongside other cremated remains from the same time period, and they are all buried together in a mass grave.
Most — about two thirds — of the unclaimed bodies here are men (as is the case in Japan), and if it's hard to imagine why adults would go unclaimed, imagine the babies:
One hundred thirty-seven are babies. Some were stillborn; others lived for a short time. Instead of the brown plastic boxes that hold adults' remains, babies' ashes are stored in small paper bags, neatly folded like wallets and placed in metal drawers.
This undermines our very sense of community and dignity as people — the idea that surely there is someone somewhere who cares enough to make sure a dead person, or child, or infant, gets at least, if not in life, a dignified ending surrounded by the people they loved and who loved them. But it is not always so. From the Times:
When coroners are unable to find relatives they sometimes submit their request to
, an online group of about 600 volunteers who scour public records for possible family.
Megan Smolenyak, an independent genealogist based in Haddonfield, N.J., founded the group, which draws up a report of likely relatives and submits that to the coroner or medical examiner who asked for help.
Smolenyak called unclaimed people a "quiet epidemic."
"A lot of times you get to the heart of it and it's some silly little feud," she said. "You don't have to mend bridges. Just keep in touch."
This, then, must be the simplest solution to what is indeed a quiet, terrible epidemic. Just keep in touch.