Unattended Death: What Is It and What Does It Mean?

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What happens when someone passes away at home, and nobody finds them for a long period of time? An unattended death, in legal terms, occurs when a person passes away in the absence of medical care but also refers to any death occurring without a witness.

Who Knows?

Sensational news stories about unattended deaths, such as that of Joyce Carol Vincent, 38, who lay dead in her living room for three years before discovery, prompt us to ask how such things can happen without society noticing.

Neighbors attributed odors from Vincent’s decomposing body to the smells from garbage bins below her open window. Not much is known about her, other than that she lived a quiet, seemly average life, with no close attachments. Her story caused a lot of people to look inward and wonder if they’d be missed if they died alone.

But many are. When a person dies alone, whether by suicide, natural causes or an accident, it could be days, weeks or even months before they are found. The telltale odors and pest issues related to unattended death vary, depending upon climate and season. Our society’s paradoxical attitudes towards privacy—even in the age of social media—mean that we often make a point to ignore the comings and goings of our neighbors, and if someone doesn’t return a phone call or post on Facebook, it could be days or weeks before we think something’s actually wrong.

Persons suffering depression tend to gradually withdraw from society, and the remains of suicide victims can go undiscovered for days, weeks or even months.

Who Is At Risk?

Seniors are at a higher risk of unattended death and delayed discovery, especially in a culture in which family members are spread around the country, and our elderly population retains more independence later in their lives. Heart failure, falls, and strokes occur more frequently among the elderly, no matter how active their lifestyle.

People of all ages can have accidents at home that prohibit them from calling first responders.

But How Do We Miss Them?

Think of a friend of yours who lives alone. If she missed your monthly book club meeting, would you be worried enough to call and check in on her? Have you been meaning to call your elderly uncle, but you’re so used to texting and e-mail that it’s difficult to remember to pick up the landline and give him a ring?

What about your former co-worker, whose Facebook posts a few weeks ago had struck you as a bit of a downer…but, you realize, you haven’t seen him pop up on your news feed lately?

Even our close friends can fall off our radar as our busy lives consume our attention.

Unattended deaths might not always garner the attention of London’s Joyce Carol Vincent, but they happen more frequently than we might wish to admit.

Unfortunately, those who pass away alone leave more than regret in their wake. When a person dies and his body remains undiscovered for any period of time, decomposition damages their environment, leaving family members, friends and landlords with the question, “How do I clean up after an unattended death?”