Impact of an Unattended Death on a Family

A traumatic experience is learning that a member of your family died alone and that the deceased loved one’s remains were not immediately found. This type of scenario is known as an unattended death (or an undiscovered death). The death of a person in this manner impacts the deceased person’s family in a number of different ways.

Common Underlying Causes of an Unattended Death

Not only is the reality a family member died alone coupled with a delay in discovering the remains, traumatic for surviving family, the underlying cause of the death itself can make the aftermath of this type of passing even more overwhelming. Common causes of unattended deaths include:

  • Homicide
  • Suicide
  • Accident
  • Sudden traumatic illness

No matter the underlying cause of death, the fact that the remains of a family member have been left undiscovered for days, weeks, or even months permits the human decomposition process to continue apace. The end result is a death scene that necessitates what fairly can be called a herculean effort to restore the premises to their original state.

Discovering an Unattended Death

Oftentimes the individual who discovers the remains of an unattended death is the family member. This can prove to be a truly traumatic experience. With that noted, there are some things that must be borne in mind upon the discovery of an unattended death.

The scene must be cordoned off. In other words, you need to leave the scene of the unattended death and ensure that no one else enters it. There are two primary reasons why this must be done:

  • First, an unattended death scene presents health hazards.
  • Second, law enforcement and the coroner must have access to an undisturbed scene in order to make a determination of the cause and manner of death.

You need to dial 911 upon the discovery of an unattended death to get law enforcement and other appropriate personnel to the scene. In California, that will include the county coroner. The county coroner is always involved in the aftermath of an unattended death.

Upon arrival at the scene, law enforcement and the coroner will conduct an investigation at the premises themselves. When that is completed, the coroner transports the remains to the medical examiner’s office for an autopsy and other forensic testing. The scene itself will be released to the property owner or next of kin, depending on the circumstances.

At this juncture, the unattended death cleanup – or biohazard remediation – can commence. Technically speaking, family members or the property owner (if a person died an unattended death in a rental unit, for example) can undertake the cleanup process on their own. However, this is never recommended. There are health hazards associated with an unattended death scene, which are detailed shortly. In addition, the significant emotions that accompany learning a family member has died in this manner need not be unduly magnified by survivors taking personal responsibility for cleaning up the aftermath of an unattended death or undiscovered death.

Warning: Reality of Death and Human Decomposition

The human decomposition process commences directly when a person dies. Ironically, this is the case because even when a person dies, his or her remains are teaming with life. A person lives in the first instance, in part because of what we oftentimes call “good bacteria” that live in the body, primarily in the intestines and pancreas.

When death occurs, the nutrient supply to these good bacteria is turned off (blood flow stops) and these microorganisms must turn to the body itself for sustenance. In basic terms, the bacteria seeking nourishment from the body itself is the catalyst for decomposition. Other factors do come into play, but this is the initial impetus for decomposition.

Health and Safety Issues Associated with Unattended Death Cleanup

There are significant health and safety issues associated with an unattended death cleanup. The scene of the death will be contaminated with dangerous pathogens that have the potential for causing serious illness. Indeed, the possibility exists that the scene of an unattended death may be contaminated with viruses or bacteria that not only can cause illness but may be capable of causing fatal disease.

Examples of pathogens that could be present at the scene of an unattended death include:

  • HIV
  • Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis C
  • MRSA
  • Other infectious diseases

The prompt, thorough, and safe remediation of all aspects of the death scene and the premises generally is a must in order to ensure that the property is restored to a fully habitable or usable state.