This New York Times piece on the lonely death of George Bell is one of the most interesting and poignant pieces I’ve read lately. Interesting, because it dives deeply into the machinery of public administration and the sleuthing process followed when a person dies alone, and poignant, because George Bell died without family or friends.
Bell lived alone in his apartment in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. He died there in 2014 at age 72. The authorities aren’t sure exactly when he died, because his body was found only after a neighbor noticed a rank smell and called the police. When the police arrived, in the middle of July, they found a body that had been decomposing for days in an apartment crammed with the kinds of possessions and mystifying mountains of garbage and other stuff that hoarders inevitably accumulate. The condition of the body was such that they couldn’t initially confirm it was Bell — which required some of the sleuthing described in the story — and he had no wife, or family, or friends to identify his remains.
The Times piece is a long one. It carefully traces the steps that are followed when a person is found dead, alone, in New York City, and in so doing it also tells some of the back story of George Bell. He was an only child. He worked for a time for his father, served in the U.S. Army Reserves, and began working in the moving business. After his father died and his mother became crippled by arthritis, he took care of her. He drank, and was known to some friends as “Big George.” He never married, although he came close. He was a diabetic. He was injured at work in 1996 and began living on disability payments and a union pension — and one by one, he began to snip away his connections to the world. After thirty years of growing isolation, his last regular acquaintance was a person he had met at his regular bar.
I’ve always thought the most terrifying part of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol wasn’t the appearance of Marley’s ghost, or Scrooge’s visit to his gravesite, but the scene at his deathbed, where Scrooge lies, dead, alone, and unmourned, while his belongings are looted by people who felt no pity for him. In that respect, George Bell was like a modern-day Scrooge, dying without leaving much of a mark on the world around him.
It’s a sad story, but also a compelling one. One of the workers whose job is to ferret through the apartments of lonely people like George Bell, looking for evidence of relatives, has drawn upon his macabre job to consciously try to build his circle of friends and his connections to the world. “I don’t want to die alone,” he says.