What Happens When You Die Alone?

We live in a lonely age: isolation is reaching epidemic proportions and the number of pauper funerals are on the rise. We followed Liverpool's death administration team to find out what happens when people with no family or friends pass away.

08 December 2016, 12:08pm

All photos by the author

All photos by the author

It's a winter afternoon and Jo and Pam walk into a terraced house in Liverpool. There's a note on the doormat letterbox.

"Andrew*, can you give the office a call to say you are OK? Matt."

In the living room there's an armchair, a table with a Sky remote, an inhaler and a phone bill laid out. In the kitchen there's a dirty plate. You can see the dried remains of ketchup and baked beans.

A few weeks ago, Andrew sat down in the chair and died. He'd died alone, like the thousands of people in Britain who do so every year – a number that is increasing rapidly. He was discovered by his landlord after the accountancy firm he worked for called the police to check up on him. A full autopsy hasn't been performed yet, but it is believed that the cause of his death derived from chest problems.

Jo and Pam have a grim job. They run the local council's "death administration" team, looking after all the arrangements for people who've died alone that friends or relatives would normally take care of. They organise their funeral, sort out their will and clear the belongings out of their home.

Once we get into the living room, Pam and Jo get out their "search bag" and a litter grabber. On some jobs they'll pull on protective suits, gloves and shoe protectors. They might spray some air freshener before they start. Andrew's body, however, was removed a few weeks ago. "Normally it's much worse," says Jo, "with stuff up to your waist and flies everywhere."

On every job the pair are looking for traces of any possible family members – long-lost cousins or estranged partners or children. "This will often be in the form of photographs, letters or a birthday card saying, 'To Uncle so-and-so....' or whatever," says Pam. "We're dealing with private people who keep themselves to themselves, but who often die when they feel they've got no one."

Jo and Pam go to the bedroom first. There's a cupboard, with little else in it other than the shirts Andrew wore for work, recently dry-cleaned. It's a bare house with few possessions, although he obviously loved sport – there are boxes of Everton football and England cricket programmes, and ticket stubs going back decades. Andrew had no known partner, children or siblings. The only signs of companionship are photo albums from holidays to watch cricket and Everton overseas, sometimes with people who look like they could have been friends, sometimes without.

According to a report from the Longevity Centre, the number of men living alone will rise from 911,000 in 2014 to 1.5 million by 2013. The research found that over 1.2 million men aged over 50 reported a moderate to high degree of social isolation, while 710,000 men aged over 50 reported a high degree of loneliness.

The vast majority of the death team's cases are male. "Men are the ones who most often isolate themselves from friends and family," Pam explains.

Jo and Pam are also on the lookout for a will, financial documents and any valuable possessions. "We know where to look first," says Pam. "People put cash and things in mugs and socks and mattresses normally." They find Andrew's will in an Iceland carrier bag in his bedroom. Later they find out that both of the two people to whom he assigns his estate – his stepfather and his re-married partner – are dead. Not that it would have made a difference if they were alive – the company that authorised it doesn't exist any more.

You've got to keep your distance from cases to do them efficiently, but you do take a few cases home with you, that are really harrowing.

Around 90 percent of people with no next of kin will not leave a will, Jo and Pam say. So anything valuable they find will be added to the safe at the council offices. Depending on how much money a person has left behind, the cost of the funeral alone can wipe out most of it. The average cost of a basic funeral is currently at around £3,900 nationwide, the fastest rising fixed cost in the UK of the last decade, outstripping the inflation of rent, food and utilities.

Typically, if a subject doesn't have the means to pay for their own funeral, Jo will arrange a "contract" or "public health" funeral – historically known as "pauper's funerals". The service will likely have no attendees. There will be no headstone, and in some counties where land is especially scarce – such as London and South Wales – the body will be buried in a communal, or "mass", grave plot. With an 11 percent increase in public health funerals in the last four years, Jo's team is arranging an increasing number of these types of services.

Through their search of Andrew's bedroom, Pam comes across a bank statement that shows Andrew has £40,000 sitting in a bank account. For other valuables, they learn from Andrew's landlord that David*, a colleague of Andrew's, has already been into the property since he died and taken Andrew's watch, a ring, his passport and his wallet, under the auspices of "keeping them safe", despite having no right to do so. David somehow also knows that he has £40,000 in his account, and on the phone tries to argue that it should be Andrew's boss who sorts out the estate.

Pam tells him otherwise.

"We get this thing all the time," she says. "People coming out of the woodwork to take advantage."

Winter is Jo and Pam's busiest time of year. An older person dies every seven minutes in the UK in winter – a figure largely put down to shockingly high levels of fuel poverty. They'll be out again at more properties tomorrow, searching for items that might be able to help them trace friends or relatives. It's a bleak but necessary job.

Pam and Jo both came into their jobs through helping vulnerable people – Pam was a social worker, Jo a nurse. "You've got to keep your distance from cases to do them efficiently, but you do take a few cases home with you that are really harrowing," says Pam. "On very, very rare occasions we'll go to the funeral, and we might be the only people there," says Jo.

Buried deep in a drawer they find a photo of a little boy who turns out to be Andrew's godson, Paul*, who may have some rights to his estate. In cases like this, the council's solicitor will try to locate these long-lost friends and family, a process that can take several months, using family trees and an extensive database. If no one can be found by the solicitor, all the photos, certificates and football programmes will be thrown away. Any other assets will be handed over to the Crown Estate and invested into charitable foundations.

After that, the person's file will be closed and the team move on to the next job.

*Names have been changed