When a person passes away without medical supervision or witnesses, the legal definition is “unattended death.” Often, unattended deaths occur in the individual’s home, and the body is not discovered for days, weeks or even months.
As awful as crime scenes and accidents are, the lonely sadness of an unattended death is perhaps the hardest to bear for the families. It is also challenging to clean.
The usual questions of how to tell relatives and friends come with the nagging suspicion they overlooked something, and then the families or coworkers discover all the evidence left by the police.
Those unimaginable questions do have answers, however, what follows are a few that might prove helpful if you find yourself in this trying situation.
The processes of decomposition, which include insidious bacterial growth, is as unpleasant to clean as it is to witness. Such bacteria can permeate carpeting, clothing, furniture, essentially the entire home in only a few days.
It is more than just a heartbreaking mess, it is also a potentially harmful and toxic threat to the well-being of those who must still live and work in the home or business.
Sometimes just a few hours, depending on the weather, is enough to taint and stain the house or apartment, destroying everything within, and it is the job of the cleaner to salvage whatever they can for the sake of those who remain.
Common Unattended Death Scenarios
Following are seven fictionalized scenarios all too common to unattended death situations. Companies specializing in biohazard mitigation and house cleaning after the discovery of an unattended death encounter each of these situations on a regular basis, though we as individuals might have a hard time accepting that it could happen to us at any time.
It Can Happen To Anyone, Anytime
Teresa is an elderly woman who is active and independent experiences a sudden heart attack in her home. Unable to call for help, she passes away; her neighbors, who usually keep to themselves, aren’t in the habit of checking on her. Her adult children who live in different states are used to their mother taking spontaneous trips and aren’t concerned until they can’t reach her for more than two weeks. They contact police for a welfare check, and officers find her deceased.
Robert has from Major Depressive Disorder. He recently lost his job at a financial firm, and his wife has been struggling to pick up the slack. One day, she comes home from work to find that Robert has shot himself. As with all such cases, an unattended death investigation ensues, and after determining the cause to be suicide, Robert’s wife Sarah is left with the task of housecleaning after his death.
Malcolm is changing an acoustic panel in the ceiling of his unfinished basement when the latter tips over. He falls, receiving a fatal blow to his head. He had lived alone, and remains undiscovered for three months; only after he fails to deliver his rent does his landlord access the property to find Malcolm’s badly decomposed body.
Jonathan is a real estate agent specializing in foreclosed, often derelict properties. One of his jobs is to look after the empty houses in his company’s inventory, as they await their turn for restoration and market listing. In spite of having a security company check in on the properties, people will break into the buildings to “squat”, and on more than one occasion he’s discovered evidence of drug use. Twice, he has discovered bodies decomposing after obvious heroin overdoses, requiring extensive biohazard cleanup.
Mark’s wife and two kids are at the family’s summer cottage when he drowns in the family pool while doing laps. The pool maintenance worker discovers him two days after his death. After the unattended death investigation, Mark’s wife faces the problem of seeking and hiring a company to undertake the job of cleaning the swimming pool, which, even with her husband’s minor decomposition, had become a biohazard.
Alise slips and fractures her skull in a hotel bathroom while on a business trip. While her body is found only two hours later by hotel staff, the blood and body fluids resulting from her death requires careful biohazard cleanup in order to meet sanitation standards for the health department.
JoAnn lives alone, except for 15 cats and six dogs. Technically a hoarder, law enforcement is accustomed to receiving calls from her neighbors about noxious odors. On several occasions over the years, animal welfare agencies had checked on JoAnn’s property, finding that the woman met basic legal criteria for caring for the animals.
One day JoAnn’s situation and illness overwhelm her to the point of suicide. She isn’t discovered for six weeks, and the tragedy is compounded by the deaths of many of her animals. Cleanup costs are extensive given decomposition of human and animal bodies, accumulation of animal waste and the detritus of her hoarding habits.
Her estate becomes the responsibility of an estranged sibling, who is tasked with the enormous job and expense of cleaning up the property after JoAnn’s remains—but not that of the animals—are removed.
Planning For The Unpleasant
Property managers, homeowners and loved ones often have a plan for emergencies in the home in the case of fire or bad weather: Make sure everyone gets out safe, call the authorities when warranted, and call the insurance agent. What do you do when the emergency involves cleaning up a body?
Our aging population and our society’s increasing tendency for physical isolation increases the odds that one day, we will need to deal with cleaning up after an unattended death. Social media and cell phones aren’t always reliable tools for keeping track of loved ones, especially among the older generations.
Should I Have Daily Checkups?
It’s important to encourage and maintain regular contact with isolated family members and tenants, and be prepared with a checklist for managing these unpleasant situations should they occur.
Keep the name and number of a reputable, trusted biohazard recovery company with your emergency numbers. The death of a loved one is always stressful, but dealing with decomposition and resulting property damage should be left to licensed, professional biohazard cleanup specialists.
The expense is often covered by property insurance, with financial assistance often offered through civic organizations.
If you manage rental or hospitality properties, keep an unattended death checklist and train your employees to follow the steps when they encounter a body; these steps will ease authorities in their unattended death investigations and facilitate cleanup of the property after the body is removed.