What happens when someone dies alone
October 17, 2015 3:21 PM   Subscribe

The Lonely Death of George Bell (slnyt) Incredibly well-researched, in-depth article on all the people affected by the death of a random man late last year, from the city workers charged with disposing of him and his things, to the people who knew him. Surprisingly moving, it is full of small uplifting moments.
posted by maggiemaggie (51 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
Probate is the estate tax of the masses. They managed to go through more than half
posted by knoyers at 3:34 PM on October 17, 2015


Pro tip: Do not read this within five minutes of waking up, as I did this morning, lest you fear for your soul and your mortal remains once the big sleep arrives.
posted by nevercalm at 3:38 PM on October 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


And thus the NY Times has uncovered the nightmares that haunt single people.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:42 PM on October 17, 2015 [26 favorites]


There's some language in this that really irks me ("It was as if sadness had killed George Bell.") but overall it's a very compelling story and a well told/ structured article.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 3:53 PM on October 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


Part of me wants to run shrieking from the abyss; part of me wonders if it's possible to create a smoke-detector-type device that is set off by putrescine and cadaverine, the chemicals given off by decomposing bodies.

The main problem here is that they're also found in semen, which could lead to some unfortunate incidents.

don't ask me how I know this

posted by Halloween Jack at 3:56 PM on October 17, 2015 [26 favorites]


The article examines death from the point of view of those who deal with that death.If yu want to read about death from the point of view of the dead man, then try a great work called
THE BLACK MIRROR very recently published and a terrific read.
posted by Postroad at 3:58 PM on October 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


And thus the NY Times has uncovered the nightmares that haunt single people.

A lot of the fears surrounding dying alone really aren't rational. So, you leave a gross corpse for somebody to clean up. So, people feel sorry for you. So what? You're dead, and you're either in the afterlife or (more likely) you've poofed away to nothing. Either way you'll be past caring what anybody thinks, and you won't have to watch yourself rot for days before somebody finds you.

These are the things I tell myself, anyhow.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:00 PM on October 17, 2015 [23 favorites]


See also: A Certain Kind of Death, previously here.
posted by mattdidthat at 4:04 PM on October 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


Also see the sad case of Joyce Vincent in 2003 London :
"They described a beautiful, intelligent, socially active woman, "upwardly mobile" and "a high flyer", whom they assumed "was off somewhere having a better life than they were".[1] During her life, she met figures such as Nelson Mandela, Ben E. King, Gil Scott-Heron, and Betty Wright, and had also been to dinner with Stevie Wonder.[1]"
posted by Bwithh at 4:10 PM on October 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also, for Mr. Bell:

.
posted by mattdidthat at 4:15 PM on October 17, 2015 [14 favorites]


I find stuff like this so fascinating.

Living in Berlin a few years ago, one night I was over at some friends' flat (two American guys and a French girl) when their landlord dropped in. He knew they were surviving from under the table cash jobs, and offered them something - another tenant a few floors down had vanished months before. He didn't seem to think the guy was dead, more like he had gotten really deeply in debt and had run off, but who knows. Anyways he offered to give them half off their month's rent in exchange for emptying the apartment out. So I offered to help (free furniture, plus he supplied us with beer over the three days it took). There was something simultaneously creepy and wondrous about going through the personal possessions of a total stranger - the family photographs, journals in a language I could barely read, random items that must have had personal significance due to being on display. I don't know if I could handle doing that everyday as a job, or if it would dull down to monotony.
posted by mannequito at 5:00 PM on October 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


A lot of the fears surrounding dying alone really aren't rational.
Dying alone isn't a big deal. Being alone for days, weeks, with no one close enough to care - no one close enough to come look in on you except for someone that you owe money (your landlord) - is the thing that is scary.

I cried quite a few times reading this article and found very few "uplifting" moments. It sounded like life did not extend many kindnesses to George.

And that picture of his kitchen.

I understand that he is not alive and can no longer feel shame. But it also seems a bit of a violation to see his kitchen. I don't think he wanted that.
posted by sockermom at 5:22 PM on October 17, 2015 [28 favorites]


Also previously
posted by poxandplague at 5:38 PM on October 17, 2015



I understand that he is not alive and can no longer feel shame. But it also seems a bit of a violation to see his kitchen.


Agreed. I feel like things like this are just fodder for NYT couples to clutch each other and exclaim, "that'll never be us!"

We don't have a culture where people care for each other outside pair bonding and child having so we end up with these tragedies.
posted by zutalors! at 5:43 PM on October 17, 2015 [20 favorites]


Can't help it Halloween Jack. How is it that you know semen contains putrescine and cadaverine?
posted by bigZLiLk at 5:43 PM on October 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


St. Louis responded that George Bell did not qualify as a veteran, not having seen active duty or having died while in the Reserves

Interesting; I didn't know that was how it was decided.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:46 PM on October 17, 2015


.
posted by sutt at 5:54 PM on October 17, 2015


I guess I should explain why I thought there were "uplifting" moments. I first saw this being shared on facebook this morning by a friend who is probably convinced that he is going to die this way... my friend is bitterly funny but sometimes a bit morose. So I went into this expecting the absolute worse, and certainly it starts out that way, but by the end it turns out that George Bell had friends who cared about him. He was in constant contact with the woman he almost married up until a week or so before he died. He had the wherewithal to make a will, and the money he left genuinely helped some people out.

The people whose job it is to deal with these things for the most part seemed like interesting, thoughtful and caring people, even if their job is grim.

It may seem like small potatoes, but it was an ordinary life and the sort of thing that makes the world go around.

Another friend on facebook recently posted about her father's death. He was surrounded by his family singing "Amazing Grace". He had a great life with an adoring family and that's even more uplifting, but the odds of my going out that way are slim to none.
posted by maggiemaggie at 5:57 PM on October 17, 2015 [16 favorites]


Was it the LA Times that made a point of writing a full obituary for everyone who died?

Before I read the article I had assumed it was about someone who lived in the street, and now I wonder about what happens when people in those kinds of situations die, when there isn't even an apartment to take lurid photographs of. Death is sad, but sadder still is the thought of someone's passing being memorable only for the slight hassle it made for a city official on a weekday morning, or the logistical questions of where to store the body. That the last thing anyone ever says about someone's life is "just put it over there for now."
posted by teponaztli at 6:03 PM on October 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


.

Sometimes I wonder if there's a way to connect up the people who are so isolated with each other - it seems like there should be a way. Everyone deserves to be loved and mourned.
posted by Deoridhe at 6:12 PM on October 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Damn, the estate had to pay the traffic ticket he incurred after he died? They couldn't write that one off??
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:22 PM on October 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


This happened on my street. For a second, I thought it happened in my building - there was a guy I didn't know who died downstairs and I wasn't sure until my wife straightened me out. Not as bad as my next door neighbor, though - he died on the train! He was in his 40s, like me. People thought he was just sleeping until they got to the end of the line.
posted by fungible at 6:28 PM on October 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Either way you'll be past caring what anybody thinks, and you won't have to watch yourself rot for days before somebody finds you.

If I knew that what I'm doing might harm others in the future, that future harm would bother me now, today.

I don't have to be present when a pastrami sandwich rots to know that I shouldn't leave one hidden in the cushions of your couch.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:43 PM on October 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Can't help it Halloween Jack. How is it that you know semen contains putrescine and cadaverine?

From Wikipedia; I'd looked up putrescine when I was thinking about a book I'd read about the John Wayne Gacy murders by Tim Cahill, who included the information that the investigators who excavated Gacy's crawlspace had to throw away their clothes because they couldn't get the smell out, the sort of hazmat-type coveralls described in this article apparently not being in common use then.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:52 PM on October 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


The thought of dying surrounded by my family singing Amazing Grace sounds, ironically, like a fate worse than death.

Fortunately, my family knows me well enough. They would never try it.
posted by crazylegs at 6:52 PM on October 17, 2015 [21 favorites]


I read this earlier today and one of the most touching parts of it was from the guy who helps clean up the apartments after the body is removed, looking for important records and valuables to help administrators piece together the identity of the person in question:

The solitude of so many deaths wears on Mr. Plaza, the fear that someday it will be him splayed on the floor in one of these silent apartments. “This job teaches you a lot,” he said. “You learn whatever material stuff you have you should use it and share it. Share yourself. People die with nobody to talk to. They die and relatives come out of the woodwork. ‘He was my uncle. He was my cousin. Give me what he had.’ Gimme, gimme. Yet when he was alive they never visited, never knew the person. From working in this office, my life changed.”

He is 52, also divorced, and without children, but he keeps expanding his base of friends. Every day, he sends them motivational Instagram messages: “With each sunrise, may we value every minute”; “Be kind, smile to the world and it will smile back”; “Share your life with loved ones”; “Love, forgive, forget.”

He said: “When I die, someone will find out the same day or the next day. Since I’ve worked here, my list of friends has gotten longer and longer. I don’t want to die alone.”


You always hear that people with robust social networks age best. I wonder if a large part of it is due to the psychological comfort of knowing someone will come looking for you if they don't hear from you for a while.
posted by mostly vowels at 6:53 PM on October 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


Something about food and sudden death really gets to me. Like George Bell buying shrimp he never eats. Like people sitting down to their lunch and then dying. Like Grampa Gene dying on Mad Men standing in line at the A&P and dying, I imagine with food spilling all over. I don't know what it is, but the food always gets me.
posted by zutalors! at 6:53 PM on October 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


A lot of the fears surrounding dying alone really aren't rational.

I don't worry about the dead part -- I worry about the dying part. Nothing gives me the creeps more than thinking about having declining mental facilities or being in pain and not having an advocate. Dead is dead and that does not stress me out.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:01 PM on October 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


When I was 17, I visited the farmhouse where my great-grandfather lived. He had just died, and the family was gathered in his living room, going through odds and ends, chatting and remembering him. I had no memory of the man, had not seen him since since infancy, but we have the same name.

So they gave me his old-man wallet, thick, leather and stuffed with slips of paper, insurance cards, business cards, a little cash. In it was a Texas driver's license imprinted with our name, his squinting face looking into a DMV camera from a few years prior. I didn't keep it but the memory hasn't left me.

I don't know who will discover me or what I'll leave behind, but somehow it's comforting to know there are people who really care about those things.
posted by swift at 7:06 PM on October 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Fuck. I live alone with my cat, and my apartment is always one bad depression spell away from looking like this guy's kitchen. I manage my mental health okay for now, but who the hell knows when I'm older and less mobile. I'm just staring at my laundry pile and the papers and cat hair on my floor right now, realizing how close it all looks to outright decrepitude and despairing.

I'm young and reasonably healthy and have a robust social network now. But I've been a home health aid, and I've seen what the end game often looks likes for people who live alone when those ties start weakening. It looks like this article. Please tell me this isn't what I'm in for.

I'm not going to sleep tonight, am I?
posted by ActionPopulated at 7:53 PM on October 17, 2015 [9 favorites]


I don't know if age or mental health or anything even really matters. it's the sudden death. I was just listening to one of Harris Witels' last podcasts and he was talking about how death was beautiful and part of life and didn't even seem scared about it, and he was only 31. He died alone of an overdose and his assistant reported it.

I also read his sister's account of hearing about it, and basically her world collapsed in minutes and she had to rush to tell her parents before they found out on the news.

I don't know, it's all sad all around.
posted by zutalors! at 8:03 PM on October 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Great. Now it's off to Me_irl.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:39 PM on October 17, 2015


Sweatshirt Bell and the Dude.

Here's to you guys.
posted by The Power Nap at 8:40 PM on October 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Took the time to read through the entire article, and now I'm kind of angry about the way he lived, particularly with regard to his one-time fiancee Eleanore. They kept in contact even after her husband does and yet she died alone in a trailer in debt. And he dies with half a million dollars in assets. I guess he didn't want peoples' perceptions/memories of him to be marred by the reality of his problems, but christ if that isn't a sad choice to make.

For those that this story is stirring fears in about dying alone etc: Ultimately, this was the ending of a mentally ill individual. While nobody can speak for George Bell specifically, I do sense in this story a shame about his deterioration in later years that speaks volumes about our society's attitudes towards mental health. There were people in George's life that reached out to him, and he shunned them. So the lesson for me is: Don't be afraid to seek out help. You may think you're not being a burden by keeping your problems to yourself, but really you're just creating a whole new set of issues that society has to deal with when you die.
posted by kisch mokusch at 8:42 PM on October 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


“I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens.”

― Woody Allen
posted by locidot at 8:49 PM on October 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


I understand that he is not alive and can no longer feel shame. But it also seems a bit of a violation to see his kitchen.

It is a violation. A gross violation.
posted by Beholder at 10:13 PM on October 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


I do sense in this story a shame about his deterioration in later years that speaks volumes about our society's attitudes towards mental health. There were people in George's life that reached out to him, and he shunned them. So the lesson for me is: Don't be afraid to seek out help.

Easier said than done. So much easier.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:03 PM on October 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


Just think, if it weren't for all that money, there would have been no news story in it, and George might have maintained his precious privacy after death.
posted by Scram at 11:53 PM on October 17, 2015


Easier said than done. So much easier.

Yes, because we're so conditioned to avoid help when we need it most.
posted by kisch mokusch at 12:05 AM on October 18, 2015


Have you ever tried to seek help for severe mental health issues? You might think there's some sort of societal emergency backup system that springs into action to handle the stuff you can't; I imagined something like that, but even if you tell people you're suicidal you may not find much happening. Even if you have pretty good insurance at the point when you start asking for help.

That's just my experience in one part of the U.S., but I'd kind of expect that if anywhere really had that robust of a support system then whether you explicitly ask for help or not wouldn't really matter much. Based on many of the AskMes we see, it would appear that even if you're a fully hale and mentally-competent caregiver for an elderly person it can be quite difficult to get much help.
posted by Sockpuppet Liberation Front at 1:14 AM on October 18, 2015 [11 favorites]


I'm young and reasonably healthy and have a robust social network now. But I've been a home health aid, and I've seen what the end game often looks likes for people who live alone when those ties start weakening. It looks like this article. Please tell me this isn't what I'm in for.

I take care of my elderly grandmother. Mentally, she's fine. Physically, she's a wreck and would be in an assisted care facility without my support. I've witnessed her steady decline and am soaking in a lot of hard truths about life, death, and what exist between them.

We think of death as quick, like a switch, but most people don't go out that way. Most people just get older and it's a steady spiral of "new normals" all the way to the end. Can't drive, new normal. Can't get up, after falling, without help, new normal. Can't walk without a cane, new normal. Can't walk without a walker, new normal. Needs diapers, new normal. Can't hear the TV, must use close captioning, new normal. I could go on, but I've made my point. This lonely man didn't abruptly die. He'd been slowly dying for years, each new normal moving him closer to his inevitable end, a trajectory that was both obvious and predictable.

Hell isn't some fiery hole that sinners are tossed into. Hell is the new normal.
posted by Beholder at 1:31 AM on October 18, 2015 [28 favorites]


Sorry, I was not trying to imply that the "shame" of mental illness is the only barrier to getting help, just that I think it was a major one in this instance. Based on the search to work out who he was, it looks like the last time he saw a doctor was for a chest x-ray taken 10 years earlier. So there was no evidence this man saw a doctor to manage his diabetes and obesity, let alone the anxiety/COPD/depression/etc. that led to the hoarding.

The options and services available obviously vary depending upon the nature of the problem, the state/country you live in, and of course your financial position. And while I agree that there are not a lot of options for some individuals, even when they have insurance, there is a difference between having good insurance and owning your own place with 200K in the bank. That can buy you some serious care.

In light of Beholder's comment, part of me respects him for not wanting to draw his last unhappy days out. But based on the picture provided here, I think this guy could have lived 10 years longer than he did, quite possibly with a degree of relative autonomy, simply by seeking out medical advice.
posted by kisch mokusch at 1:51 AM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


I dunno, to me it says you're not really alone? I mean even if you're literally the guy they discover when the smell gets bad, your passing affects a number of lives. Nobody really goes out alone and unlamented. You leave a trail and touch people.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:36 AM on October 18, 2015 [7 favorites]


(I'm sorry for the derail. What does "SLNYT" mean?)
posted by XtinaS at 6:19 AM on October 18, 2015


Single Link New York Times
posted by joethefob at 6:26 AM on October 18, 2015


The journalist has appeared on MeFi before: Baptism by fire.
posted by zamboni at 6:40 AM on October 18, 2015


Yes, this is what terminal mental illness looks like and it's pretty common. What was surprising to me is how much trouble the county goes through to establish identify and settle affairs of this loner that no one cared about. I wonder how much George Bell's case was given special handling because of the NYT reporter. I imagine in a lot places the George Bells get a notice in the weekly shopper and then dumped in a potters field pretty quickly while the hazmat team shovels their dwelling wholesale to the landfill while any assets, without any easily identified and located people being quickly found, are "absorbed" by the state.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:39 AM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wow. What a story.
posted by jonmc at 9:50 AM on October 18, 2015


This (of course) was the most meaningful part to me:

“I don’t think everyone should have an elaborate funeral,” he said in a soft voice. “But I think burial or cremation should be with respect, or else what is society about? I think about this man. I believe we’re all connected. We’re all products of the same God. Does it matter that this man should be cremated with respect? Yes, it does.”

He consulted the mirror and blended into the next lane. “You can have a fancy funeral, but people don’t pay for kindness,” he went on. “They don’t pay for understanding. They don’t pay for caring. This man is getting caring. I care about this man.”

posted by ColdChef at 8:22 AM on October 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'd always been curious about what happened to unclaimed people. I thought the article would end with the settling of his estate, so I was glad to see that the man had been cared about.
posted by cobain_angel at 11:42 AM on October 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


ARGH THIS MAKES ME SO SAD. On the other hand it is fascinating to see inside another person's life and know that, at least some of the time, all the little details will not be forgotten.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:06 AM on October 22, 2015


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