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Lone death may be chosen, says study

14 August 2020

Dying alone is not necessarily ‘bad’; and funeral can be an acknowledgement

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DYING alone is sometimes a choice rather than a tragedy, a two-year study from the University of Nottingham concludes.

It has explored “lone deaths”, when the person in question may have few friends or relatives and there is an increased chance that the body may not be discovered for some time. The research examines why people die alone, what circumstances can lead to them spending their final days isolated, and how individuals and services respond when such a death is discovered.

Despite talk of “uncaring society” when such cases occur, it cannot be assumed that the deceased was feeling lost or abandoned, Dr Glenys Caswell, a senior research fellow at the Nottingham Centre for the Advancement of Research in End- of-Life Care, suggests.

“Most people in Britain only learn about those who undergo lone deaths through the media reports,” she said on Wednesday. “Such reports tend to focus on how sad it is that someone should die alone in this way, and to suggest that someone is to blame, that the community has let the person down, society has forgotten them or abandoned them. But I think there is a different way of reading such deaths.”

The researchers collected in-depth information on ten cases, from documents, coroners’ trials, witness statements, interviews with people who knew the person, and people who responded to the death. They interviewed 12 professionals whose work involves them in dealing with the aftermath of a lone death, and who observed four funerals of people who died alone at home.

The study found that, in a few cases, the deceased had cut themselves off and effectively entered a period of social death before their physical death. But, in most cases, the death was of a private person who liked their own company, did not have a large circle of friends, and whose family was small, non-existent, or geographically spread. They had contributed to society and their local communities, worked in ordinary jobs, and paid their taxes.

One such case involved James Cooper (not his real name), a man in his early seventies who had always lived alone. He had worked as a carpenter until his retirement, and, at the time of his death, lived in an upstairs flat in a low-rise block. His downstairs neighbour knew him to say hello to, and they shared the task of putting out and bringing in their bins.

The neighbour went to Mr Cooper’s flat when he realised that he had not seen him for several weeks, and the body was discovered.

A distant cousin came forward when the death was reported in the local press. She said that she had visited Mr Cooper early the previous year, when he had been in good health, and described him as fiercely independent and unwilling to accept any help. She attended the public-health cremation arranged by the local authority.

“This could happen to almost anybody. It’s not fair of us to define them as someone who had a bad death, and forget about their lives as members of the community,” Dr Caswell said. “Dying alone need not indicate that the person is odd or deviant, just that they are quiet and private in their way of living. The funeral needs to acknowledge the person as a member of the community, even if little is known about them when they were alive.”

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