Frazer Blog

What happens when somebody dies alone in America?

by | Sep 19, 2016 | For Families

A woman sitting in front of a concrete wall

When we talk about someone dying, we typically talk about their loved ones whose lives are forever changed by loss.

But what about when a person leaves this world without any close relatives or friends? Though it’s rare in this day and age to find someone who doesn’t have at least one person in their lives, it does happen.

Sometimes a person has no children, or has children that live far away; someone who lives alone, has a physical or mental disability, lives in a rural area, or is simply a loner. What happens to these lonely souls when they depart this world without notice?

An Investigation

Regardless of how they are found — like if someone came across their remains, or a concerned neighbor called the cops — the police and fire department are usually the first to get involved. After the person is formally pronounced dead, the medical examiner’s office is contacted and an investigation is conducted to determine how they died.

As long as no foul play took place, the body is taken to the morgue and the identification process begins.

The Government Steps In

After the painstaking process of identifying the body and searching for loved ones to no avail, the medical examiner’s office typically contacts the county public administrator. This is the government official whose sole job is to act as executor for the affairs of someone with no known relatives.

Once the county public administrator gets involved, it is now their responsibility to protect the deceased’s assets and property. They also are in charge of paying the deceased’s bills and taxes.

When it comes to property, a team of people typically scour the person’s residence, if they have one, searching for any information regarding what their wishes were upon their death or any sign of relatives. Mail is forwarded to the county public administrator’s office, in the hopes of further clues — a bill of some sort, or a letter.

Any paperwork or electronic documents found in the residence or mailed to the office are sorted through by a decedent property agent, who tries to find any relevant and useful information regarding their estate or their heirs.

Items of value are typically removed from a residence and auctioned off, the earnings becoming a part of the estate. The rest is up to a hired cleaning crew to dispose of.

Dealing with these estates can take very little time — most have very little cash or property. But some can take months, or even years, if there is a lot of assets or cash to be dealt with.

After all the bills are paid and the property appraised or sold, the estate is divided among any beneficiaries that are found. The county public administrator’s office typically takes a certain percentage of someone’s estate as commission, and if no beneficiaries are found, the rest is given to the city.

Final Disposition

The county public administrator also arranges for a proper burial or cremation. Occasionally, if a will is found and the deceased had requested something specific, that will be arranged if the funds are available from the estate or through a charity, or if the individual had purchased a preneed arrangement.

Those who are cremated without known relatives typically have their ashes stored at the crematorium, where they remain indefinitely. Other times, the ashes are buried with others in a communal plot. It all depends on the county’s rules and restrictions.

In most areas, cremations are never performed on bodies that are not officially identified, just in case that they are not the person they are presumed to be.

But aside from the cold, unfeeling legal processes that occur when someone dies with no known loved ones, there is some good that happens every so often. Just recently, about 30 people attended the funeral of a stranger who didn’t have anyone else to celebrate her life. Earlier this year, a group of teen boys served as pallbearers for a man who died alone.

So, if you’re reading the obituary section of your newspaper over coffee and stumble across someone with no family members listed, perhaps you should consider attending, or letting others know about it. Who knows, maybe hundreds of people will show up to honor them — and everyone deserves that dignity.

Have you ever attended a funeral service for a stranger? Share your experience in the comments!

1 Comment

  1. Alicia

    I’m pretty sure I’m going to die alone, so I appreciate this useful information. I think it’s wise to purchase some kind of preneed arrangement before one dies to guarantee a proper burial or cremation.


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