What Happens When You Die Alone in New York?

Investigators unravel the mystery of George Bell's life
New York City

Credit: Aurelien Guichard

You might be surprised to hear that dying alone isn’t an entirely uncommon event in New York City. Its dense population attracts socialites as much as it does those who want to be left alone in complete anonymity, becoming just one more face in a crowd of thousands. Everyone dies, including the people who would rather have been left alone. What becomes of these lonely bodies after death?

The New York Times followed such an incident as investigators put together the puzzle pieces of one man’s life. Queens resident George Bell had died alone in his apartment days before the authorities were alerted. He had no friends or immediate family to speak of, and neighbors only alerted police when they discovered that Bell had not moved his car in days. The car had a hefty parking ticket tucked under the windshield wipers.

When investigators arrived at the apartment, they found a dead man inside, surrounded by old lottery tickets and decomposing food containers. They knew from his rental title that his name was allegedly George Bell, but they knew nothing else of this man lying on the floor in front of them.

After some initial digging, the police discovered that Bell had no living parents, no spouse, no children and no immediate relatives.

Their task was to find his next-of-kin, and it was one that seemed impossible. After some initial digging, the police discovered that Bell had no living parents, no spouse, no children and no immediate relatives. They copied down phone numbers lying around Bell’s apartment, but they couldn’t reach a single person who knew who Bell was.

Yet the bodies of those who have no one to take care of them after death are not simply cremated and thrown away with the landfill. In fact, investigators handle each of these cases with tenacity, and even tenderness. George Bell’s investigators wanted to find out not only where to leave his body, but also who he was when he was alive. They started digging for clues.

Bell’s investigators dug through every piece of paper in his apartment trying to find a single scrap that would give them the information they needed.

Queens apartments

Credit: Violette

Unlike those who have immediate family members, friends or detailed wills, people who die entirely alone have to rely on strangers to infer the kind of lives they led before they died. Bell’s investigators dug through every piece of paper in his apartment trying to find a single scrap that would give them the information they needed. In the meantime, they stored Bell’s body on ice in a morgue, not wanting to cremate or bury him without a will.

After months of going through his personal items, they finally found what they were looking for: a bank statement and a will. They were surprised to find that a man who had led such a frugal lifestyle owned about $540,000 in his bank accounts. Bell had also listed four people in his will, one of whom called investigators back to say that he had not spoken to Bell in years. They were able to give Bell his proper funeral rites, and pay Bell’s friend a portion of Bell’s estate.

The departments in charge of handling lonely deaths don’t take their jobs lightly. They need to be objective and professional, but the job inherently requires more from them than authoritarian objectivity. The investigators need to immerse themselves into the minds of those who died, trying to find the clues that will lead them to answers. In this way, they treat every life as important and worth a proper funeral, no matter how hopeless the situation seems.

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2 Responses to 

What Happens When You Die Alone in New York?

  1. avatar Jason R. says:

    My aunt died there in an apartment filled with collected tied up plastic and stuff. I had never met her in my life. I was called to attend to her because i was her only living relative. I will never forget what I saw in her home and the familiar face of someone I never knew.

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  2. avatar Zoë Byrne (Editor in Chief, SevenPonds) says:

    Hi Jason,
    I’m sorry for your loss and thank you for sharing your story with us!
    Best,
    Zoë

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