Everyone would have the desire to die with the comfort of their loved ones. For a Christian, it is a grace to be able to leave this life after having received the sacraments by a priest. Yet in the world of today many people die alone, surrounded only by the grey oblivion of forgetfulness. This is the tragedy of the individualism of a society that has slipped in the most distressing solitude.
It happens also in Italy. Occasionally in recent years, the news informs us about the discovery of some person, usually elderly, died in their own home without nobody realized it. Often it is the stench of the decomposing corpse that alarms the neighbours.
As it happened last October in Barletta, where the Fire Brigade broke into the apartment of a seventy years old woman who lived alone, after having received the signalling from the neighbours. Same script a few weeks before in Sassari: the death of a sixty-four years old man was discovered only after the other people living in the apartment building begun to feel a strong smell coming from his home. The man was sick for a long time, but in the last days of his life no one took care of him.
If in Italy such episodes remain (for now) sporadic, elsewhere they are no longer headlines. In Japan, they have even coined a term to describe this phenomenon: Kodokushi, which literally means “lonely death“. According to current estimates there are about thirty thousand cases per year in a country of over 127 million inhabitants. As revealed by an investigation of the BBC dating back to 2013, the persons affected are usually poor, reluctant to ask for assistance to the Authorities, preferring to die of starvation rather than suffer the humiliation of asking for help.
The Abandoned Poor
The fact that that nobody cares about these desperate people, nor a family member or friend, is astonishing. Often the corpses are discovered after weeks and even months from the death. It is the consequence of an old and always more fragmented society, where the family institution fades under the spotlight of an unrestrained individualism and of a profound demographic crisis: in the land of the Rising Sun today the 27,3% of the population is more than sixty-five years old.
Statistics show that in Japan in 1980 people who lived alone were approximately one hundred and ninety thousand. Twenty-five years later, in 2005, they become more than a million and today the number has grown again.
The dissemination of “lonely deaths” urged Japanese authorities to start programs of assistance in respect of those people that are most at risk: home visits, social events dedicated to the third age, distribution of news, constant check of their physical state.
The sad phenomenon attracted not only the attention of the authorities but also the curiosity of the media. Not only in Japan. In the charming Sweden, the account is no less impressive. It has been portrayed in 2015 by the Italo-Swedish director Erik Gandini in documentary-film “The Swedish Theory of love”
It is a story of the Scandinavian country far from certain sweetened stereotypes. The vision of this film is a journey in a dystopian example of a society devoted to the most absolute individualism, that swallows into oblivion the death of people. Even in Stockholm there is a specialized agency that has the task to intervene after the police retrieves the body of those who die alone, between the domestic walls, to retrace the relationships, deliver some personal effect to the relatives and process legal matters.
Sometimes finding some relative is however an impervious exercise, entrusted to operators who search thoroughly in the rooms of the deceased persons in order to recompose traces of bonds broken by time. “We are not part of a community or of a family anymore, who can we ask for help? The struggle for independence made us blind, what is the sense of having one hundred thousand euro in the bank if you are not happy?”. This is the questions that in the documentary-film Annie, an operator of these agencies, sadly asks, while searching among the drawers of a man that hung himself and that had been found dead after two years with an envelope that he had filled with money for his funeral, before the tragic gesture.
But the questions of this Swedish woman invade the heart of every inhabitant of the now even more opulent western world. A world where the diffusion of internet allows people who live at distant latitudes to get in touch with one click is common. This is the paradox of “lonely deaths “.