My wife and I are the owners of a biohazard remediation company called Eco Bear. In that capacity, we are called upon to assist people in addressing a wide range of different types of cleanup projects in Southern California and, more recently, in Las Vegas. This work includes very challenging situations that arise out of what is known as unattended deaths.
Broadly speaking, an unattended death is one in which a person dies with no one else around. In addition, the remains of a deceased person are not discovered for an extended period of time. Indeed, we have been involved in cleaning up, sanitizing, and restoring the scene of an unattended death in which the body of the deceased individual was not discovered for months.
One of our most recent cases involving an unintended death will remain sharply etched in my mind for years to come. Of course, dealing with this type of challenging cleanup and remediation situation is challenging in and of itself. In this case, what we came to know about the woman who passed on left a real impact on my wife and me. The names and some of the specifics of the encounter and job have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
A Run of the Mill Day
The day was like nearly any other January day in Southern California. The weather was pleasant. I was at work inventorying cleaning and sanitization supplies we use in residential and business cleanup and remediation jobs. About mid-morning a phone call came in from a man in San Francisco. His name was Paul.
He was rather vague on the phone but explained to me that his aunt in Torrance had passed away some time ago and he “needed help with her house.” He didn’t elaborate and explained he was running late to get to the airport in his hometown elsewhere in the state for his flight to LA. We agreed to meet at his aunt’s home in Torrance later that afternoon.
Based on the brevity of the phone conversation, I assumed at the moment that the job was going to be more along the lines of a general estate cleanup which we also undertake. Several hours after the phone conversation, I took off for my appointment.
Paul, the man who arranged for me to meet him at his aunt’s home, was waiting for me on the front porch. Before I could say anything, even a simple greeting, the man emphatically stated “I can’t go in there. I won’t go in there. I made arrangements for the police to go in yesterday. And the coroner. The coroner was here too.” Paul was talking nervously and rapidly.
I gently asked, “what happened?”
Paul explained, as best he could, that his Aunt Leah had died some time ago and it was only yesterday that her body was found in the home, in the kitchen. He ended up his explanation of the situation with another “I can’t go in.” I assured Paul that it was unnecessary for him to go into the house.
He handed me the key and walked off the front porch. I opened the door and entered, the smell of death hit me immediately. No matter how many times I’ve been on the scene of an unattended death, suicide, homicide, or some other tragedy, I am certain I will be impacted by the horrible nature of these incidents. In most cases, a human life is lost and others are profoundly impacted by death. In some cases, a human life has somehow ended, and that person left the world alone. There is no one around to mourn the passing. In this case, Leah at least had a nephew to help tend to her affairs.
Upon entering the kitchen, I was able to determine that Leah had died at her kitchen table. I did learn later that day that she had passed on about a month earlier. Based on what remained around the kitchen table, her body slipped to the floor after she died, where it remained until finally being discovered.
The police and coroner left the kitchen as they had found it. Specifically, the table was set. Leah obviously was in the midst of eating dinner at the time she expired. I was able to pinpoint the exact day of her passing, as could the police in this case.
There was a small menorah set near her dinner plate, some of the candles had burned completely down. Understanding the eight days of Chanukah, and one new candle is lit each night, I had a good idea of when Leah likely passed. The evidence indicated that Leah was having a Chanukah dinner for herself, alone.
After evaluating what needed to be done to remediate the death scene and restore the home to a livable condition, I joined Leah’s nephew Paul outside on the front lawn. He reiterated that he did not want to have to go into the house. I assured him that was unnecessary.
“My aunt, she had no children,” Paul explained. “She was my mom’s older sister … but my mom passed away a couple of years ago.”
“We see that quite a bit,” I told Paul.
“I should have remained in better touch with her. I did try and call her once a month and she would call me too. It dawned on me earlier this week that I hadn’t spoken with her in about a month. I tried to call her, left a message, didn’t get a callback. That was odd. So, I kept trying to call her throughout the next day. When I didn’t hear from her, I called the police. I asked them to do a welfare check. They did …” Paul’s voice trailed off.
Cleaning Up Leah’s Home
My team and I started on the cleanup and remediation of the death scene at Leah’s home immediately. Although these tasks are particularly challenging, we are able to eliminate any trace of what happened in a situation like that in Leah’s home.
While working in the home, I noticed that there was an array of oil paintings located throughout the residence. They all seemed to have a similar style. I asked Paul about them when I finished work in the house and Paul entered it for the first time after arriving in Los Angeles There was one painting that was particularly striking. The painting featured only a number in coal black paint, surrounded what I can only best describe as splatters of intense, deep blood red.
Paul explained that his aunt was the artists behind the paintings I’d been admiring since beginning work in the house.
Nearly always when my team and I work on projects like that at Leah’s home, we learn something about the person who has passed on and even a bit about their loved ones. This was the case with Leah who had passed and Paul, her nephew.
When Paul finished his walkthrough of the home after our work was done, I happened to be standing next to the black and red painting featuring the five-digit number.
“Did you see that one?” Paul asked me, pointing at the painting of the number.
I told him I had and was particularly intrigued by it.
“My Aunt, she was a Holocaust survivor,” Paul explained.
“And that was her number, the tattoo she was given?”
Paul shook his head “no” and explained that she was a little girl when she and her parents were taken to Auschwitz. “My mother was Leah’s sister and was even younger,” Paul added.
Paul spent a moment looking at the number on the painting.
“You see, Leah’s mom, my grandma … she died at Auschwitz. And the number …” His voice trailed off like it had when I talked to him on the first day I met him. “The number belonged to Leah’s mother, my grandmother. She memorized it as a child and never forgot it as an adult.”
I admit there is always something profoundly sad about a person who dies alone and whose death is not discovered for some time … worse yet, a long time. The irony of a woman surviving Auschwitz and the Holocaust, with hundreds of people dying around her every day, ending up dying alone was not lost on me.
About a year later, I received a package in the mail from Leah’s son Paul. I opened the parcel. Inside was a framed, sharp reproduction of the painting of the number of the type used at Auschwitz on Jewish prisoners during World War II.
With the photo was a note from Leah’s son:
As a little girl, my aunt (and my mom and grandmother) were stripped of their dignity. Thank you for respecting my aunt’s dignity after her unfortunate death. In doing so, you honor her life in a manner that did not always happen during her days on Earth.