Unattended Death: What Is It and What Does It Mean?


What happens when someone passes away at home, and nobody finds them for a long period of time? An unattended death, in legal terms, occurs when a person passes away in the absence of medical care but also refers to any death occurring without a witness.

Who Knows?

Sensational news stories about unattended deaths, such as that of Joyce Carol Vincent, 38, who lay dead in her living room for three years before discovery, prompt us to ask how such things can happen without society noticing.

Neighbors attributed odors from Vincent’s decomposing body to the smells from garbage bins below her open window. Not much is known about her, other than that she lived a quiet, seemly average life, with no close attachments. Her story caused a lot of people to look inward and wonder if they’d be missed if they died alone.

But many are. When a person dies alone, whether by suicide, natural causes or an accident, it could be days, weeks or even months before they are found. The telltale odors and pest issues related to unattended death vary, depending upon climate and season. Our society’s paradoxical attitudes towards privacy—even in the age of social media—mean that we often make a point to ignore the comings and goings of our neighbors, and if someone doesn’t return a phone call or post on Facebook, it could be days or weeks before we think something’s actually wrong.

Persons suffering depression tend to gradually withdraw from society, and the remains of suicide victims can go undiscovered for days, weeks or even months.

Who Is At Risk?

Seniors are at a