There is a certain story told about single people that seems to have an odd sort of power. It is the story about a single person dying all alone, their body undiscovered for a very long time. Often, the person dies watching TV and when someone finally finds them – maybe because of the foul odor emanating from their apartment – the TV is still on. An addition indignity is sometimes added – insects are crawling all over the dead body, maybe even consuming it.
Many of these depictions are fictional. As sociologists Neta Yodovich and Kinneret Lahad point out in their scholarly analysis, they have shown up in TV shows such as Bones, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under. Sometimes they make an appearance in humorous asides, as in the infamous quip from Bridget Jones Diary warning that single people could end up “dying alone and found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian.”
Once in a great while, some version of the scare story really does happen in real life – though usually not the part about getting eaten by critters. An example was a man who died in New York, whose story was described at great length by the New York Times in 2015. The article was immensely popular, staying atop the list of most-read stories for days.
I struggled with the appeal of that story at the time, and I’m still wondering about the psychological dynamics that draw people into these narratives. Why do single people read these stories? What about married people or people such as aging unmarried parents living with their grown children?
There are some easy answers that may or may not capture a bit of the truth. For example, maybe there are single people who have internalized the cultural scare stories and truly are frightened that they will die alone and their body will go undiscovered for months. And maybe the married people, and the unmarried people safely ensconced in comfortable homes with their children right there beside them, feel smugly superior when they hear those kinds of stories. Maybe they feel confident that such a dire fate will never befall them.
I’ve been thinking about this again after reading that intriguing sociological paper. The authors paid special attention to an episode from Six Feet Under, “The Invisible Woman,” about Emily Previn, a 47-year old single woman. As the authors note:
“In a short opening scene, Emily chokes on her food while eating dinner alone in front of the television. After a short struggle, Emily collapses and dies. In the following scene, Emily’s body can be seen lying on the kitchen floor, covered with ants. Emily’s landlord and her neighbour enter her house following the neighbour’s complaint about the pungent smell emanating from Emily’s house. The two walk into the kitchen, and find Emily’s decaying body.”
It wasn’t enough that Emily ended up alone, in a degraded position, eaten by ants, and stinking up the place. Soon the Fisher family piled on. (The Fishers were the main characters of Six Feet Under; they ran a funeral parlor out of their own home.) Nate said, “I don’t think this woman had anyone in her life.” Another character, Federico, who helped the Fishers with body restoration, said that Emily’s body was too far gone to be restored. Nate then became even crueler, speculating that perhaps Emily was “some vicious asshole, just twisted and evil.” Ruth, the mother of Nate and David and Claire, was deeply disturbed by what happened to Emily.
What intrigued the sociologists about the story of Emily Previn is that eventually, a much more dignified interpretation was offered, both by Claire and by Ruth. Each in turn floated the idea that Emily may have been living a life that she chose and that she enjoyed.
Ruth grappled with her own preoccupation with Emily’s story, until she figured out why, and gathered her family around her to explain: “I don’t want to turn into her.” Nate insists that she needn’t worry because she has her three children. But Ruth isn’t buying it:
“I do not. Nate, you’ve been walking around like a zombie for months. David, you’ve been lying in bed in the middle of the day, God knows why…Claire, I can’t even look in your direction without having you act like it’s an incredible imposition. All I want is for us not to act like strangers. I want intimacy.”
Ruth was the only one to articulate her craving for the intimacy that was missing from her life. All the Fishers, though, were struggling “with their predicaments and heartaches alone.” Nate, for example, had a disease that could prove fatal, but he was keeping that terrifying possibility to himself.
So there it is – a very different explanation for why some people are drawn to stories about the person who dies alone. It is an explanation that urges us to look past our usual understandings and presumptions. Just because a person is surrounded by family does not mean that they are protected from profound loneliness. Maybe that’s one of the scariest possibilities: that you did everything “right” – you got married, you had kids…you even live with your kids. And yet, you too could die “alone” in the most painful sense of the word. You feel truly alone, even though you have family all around you.
Yodovich, N., & Lahad, K. (2017). ‘I don’t think this woman had anyone in her life’: Loneliness and singlehood in Six Feet Under. European Journal of Women’s Studies.