There has been a rise in cases where bodies have been undiscovered for prolonged periods
Earlier this year a man was discovered dead in his Dublin home when council workers carrying out work near the property discovered a hand grenade.
His decomposing body was found only after the device was made safe and workers could enter his home. It was suspected he died during lockdown, and may have been dead for about a year.
That case last February has some similarities to that of Nicholas and Hilary Smith, pensioners from the UK who were found dead in Tipperary last month about a year-and-a-half after they died.
Nobody noticed for a considerable period that there was anything wrong in these homes. The reasons were complicated, but both cases involved people who kept to themselves. The discoveries came after both homes were noticed to have become unkempt.
These are not the only such cases this year.
A couple of months ago emergency services recovered a body from a house in the midlands. It was suspected the man had been dead for more than a month.
There was another case in the south of the country where two senior gardaí and a young officer serving probation carried out a welfare check at a property in a busy area.
Before opening the door, the senior gardaí noticed an odour that prompted them to stop their young colleague from entering the house. A body inside had decomposed quickly because the heating had been left on for about six months.
Coroners say they are aware of several cases up and down the country where similar discoveries have been made.
“I did have one case earlier this year where somebody was dead from around the end of January and was found in mid-February,” said Frank O’Connell, president of the Coroners Society of Ireland.
“He wouldn’t let anybody into the house at all or answer the door. There were mental health issues in the case.”
Coroners are at the forefront of such cases. Mental health issues are not always cited as a factor, but reclusive or isolating behaviours usually are.
Mr O’Connell said that while cases where a body lies undiscovered for weeks are rare, they happen with greater frequency now than when he was appointed coroner in south Cork in 1994.
He is currently the coroner for south Cork and West Cork.
“Every year I get one or two cases where somebody is dead a long time in my area, at least a week or more.”
Such as in life, deaths and inquest hearings in relation to these lonely stories regularly go under the radar.
Often there is no family present at the inquests, nobody to speak about what type of person the deceased was.
Cork city coroner Philip Comyn said he had a case last year where a woman working in a busy office was “missing for two or three months” before her body was found at home. She had not shown up to work for some time and it was only after her workplace sounded the alarm that she was discovered.
In these cases related by Mr O’Connell and Mr Comyn, the bodies were found more quickly than in the recent Tipperary case, or the one where the grenade led to a body being discovered by council workers in Dublin. But three years ago, Mr Comyn attended two unrelated cases in Cork where bodies lay undiscovered at separate addresses in the city for about six months.
George Harrington (79) was found at his home in The Glen, Cork, in May 2019 after his son raised the alarm. Richie Scanlon (84), from Blackpool, Cork, was found that July. Their inquests were held within a week of each other.
Mr Comyn remembers being particularly surprised nobody noticed Mr Scanlon missing.
“He had been quite involved in the community and just stopped. He lived in a busy area, yet nobody in the shop he went to for his groceries, the place where he went for an occasional drink, nobody seemed to react to the fact he was gone,” Mr Comyn told the Sunday Independent.
“All inquests are sad, but it is particularly sad when someone dies on their own and it is missed. Anyone who dies on their own, in circumstances like this, it is a bit more poignant.”
Around this time another coroner, Patrick O’Connor in Mayo, encountered a case where a woman’s body was found about three months after she passed away.
A neighbour called gardaí in April 2019 after noticing the curtains were drawn at Irene Daly’s home at Glencarra, Knock. They could see bluebottles in the window. The inquest heard Ms Daly fixed three A4 pages to her front door with a handwritten message: “I don’t need anything. I am very well. I have everything.”
Mrs Daly’s daughter, Hilda Good, lived in Cork. She told the inquest the pair had not spoken since they argued the previous Christmas over her mother living in Mayo.
Mr O’Connor, who is the public information officer at the Coroners Society of Ireland, said these cases often involve a person who values their privacy and wants to be alone.
“It would be very unusual to have a person missing and found in their own home after more than a fortnight — the reason being that someone would miss them, the postman would call, and there would be no answer, there would be an electricity meter reading or some other service — but there are people who are reclusive as well and just don’t want anybody coming near them,” Mr O’Connor added.
“You may have had the case in the past where a postman is told, in the nicest possible way, never to approach the house and leave the letters in a letterbox. It is only when the letterbox hasn’t been opened for a while that he might notice the pile-up.
“If it is a person living alone and they have come to the notice of the social services for whatever reason, whether it is a public health nurse or carer calling regularly, then a body is unlikely to be left for very long.
“In circumstances where there might be a reclusive type of person or a person who hasn’t engaged with the services because they are too young, they are independent and don’t need it, that can’t be a trigger.”
While it was suspected the pandemic may have been a factor in the Tipperary and Dublin cases this year, this is not a new trend. There are no recorded statistics for such cases, however.
In 2016 two brothers aged in their 70s were found several weeks after they passed away at their home in Bluebell, Dublin.
Daniel and William McCarthy were originally from Kerry. They were deaf, so their verbal communication skills were limited and they developed a reputation locally for keeping to themselves. It was believed Daniel (73) became a carer for his brother, and William (76) was unable to get help when the younger sibling passed away.
Post-mortem examinations showed they died of natural causes.
This came almost a year after 82-year-old Bridget Crosbie was found dead at her home in Wexford in November 2015. A neighbour reported not seeing her since August.
An inquest into her death heard she had a sister, but contact between them dwindled due to Ms Crosbie’s involvement in a religious group that precluded members contacting people with different beliefs.
Each of the coroners said there has been a small but noticeable increase in the number of cases in recent years where bodies have been undiscovered for prolonged periods.
“Particularly in the last two or three years,” Mr O’Connor said.
“The other aspect of it is because there is a reduction in services generally, with fewer people calling to houses, particularly exacerbated in the last two years by Covid when people were reluctant to call on others for very good reasons; that has led to a number of undiscovered deaths in homes for a period of time.”
Alone, a charity supporting the elderly, has also previously raised concerns that the problem could become more common. Last week its CEO Seán Moynihan appealed to elderly people in Tipperary to seek support after the recent case there.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, some older people sadly became more isolated from their neighbours, communities and the supports they needed,” he said.
Solutions are hard to fathom.
Mr O’Connell feels it will be hard to protect people’s right to live alone by introducing measures to prevent lonely deaths or bodies going undiscovered.
At a previous inquest, Mr O’Connor recommended people living alone should be urged to invest in panic buttons. He still sees this as a valuable resource that would help in some cases.
However, there are worries an ageing and more isolated population means these cases will continue to occur more regularly.
“Societal change means people don’t know their neighbours in the city in the way they used to,” Mr Comyn said.
“They become strangers to each other in a way they wouldn’t have previously.”