The death of a loved one is always difficult. When that death occurs unexpectedly or goes undiscovered for some time, families must take special care in the cleanup process. This guide will walk through the steps for properly and safely handling the aftermath of an unattended death.
Understanding Unattended Deaths
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An unattended death refers to a situation where a person dies and their body is not discovered for an extended period of time – typically days, weeks, or even months.
Some common causes and scenarios for unattended deaths include:
- Elderly adults, especially those living alone without regular contact with family and friends
- People experiencing homelessness
- Accidents or injuries that incapacitate a person who lives alone
- Suicides that occur in a private location
- Homicides where the body is successfully concealed
Unattended deaths pose special health and safety hazards for those who discover the body, including:
- Biohazardous materials like bodily fluids and decay
- Potentially dangerous gases released during decomposition
- Risk of communicable diseases depending on the deceased’s health status
- Psychological trauma associated with discovering a deceased body
Immediate Steps After Discovery
If you discover an unattended death, there are several important actions to take right away:
- Contact authorities – Call emergency services so police can investigate and contact the coroner’s office
- Secure the location – Avoid disturbing the scene and limit access to the area
- Notify next of kin – Respectfully inform family and friends of the individual’s passing
Working With the Coroner’s Office
The county coroner or medical examiner will take possession of the body and determine if an autopsy is needed based on the circumstances.
- Autopsies may be required for unattended deaths to determine or confirm the cause of death.
- The coroner’s office will transport the body to the morgue.
- They can provide official documentation like the death certificate when ready.
Hiring Professional Cleanup Services
Attempting to clean up biohazardous materials without proper training puts your own health at risk. Professional cleanup is strongly advised.
- DIY cleaning is not recommended due to bloodborne pathogens and decomp fluids.
- Proper techniques and equipment like hazmat suits, commercial disinfectants, and specialty deodorizers are required.
- Costs for professional remediation often fall in the $2000 to $5000 range, but insurance may provide coverage. Check your policy.
Legally Closing Out the Estate
Before distributing the deceased’s property, take care of final legal matters:
- Check for a will to understand their wishes. If no will exists, follow your state’s laws.
- Settle outstanding accounts like credit cards and utilities.
- Distribute possessions to beneficiaries or heirs according to the will’s instructions.
Disposing of Contaminated Items
Any materials that come into contact with hazardous bodily fluids and gases will need to be safely destroyed.
- Soft, porous surfaces like carpets, mattresses, and upholstered furniture should be discarded.
- Professional biohazard disposal methods like incineration may be required.
Deep Cleaning and Disinfection
After removing contaminated items, the site can be restored to a safe, habitable condition.
- Scrub and deodorize all remaining hard surfaces.
- Apply commercial disinfectants according to instructions to neutralize all bacteria.
- Conduct air quality tests if needed to verify safety.
Emotional Support and Recovery
Discovering an unattended death can be emotionally traumatic. Seek help to process grief.
- Consider contacting a counselor or support group to discuss your experience.
- Be patient and gentle with yourself – there is no “right” way to feel.
- Over time, focusing on positive memories and your loved one’s legacy can help bring closure.
The death of a loved one is never easy, but taking proper safety precautions and caring for your emotional needs can help you get through this difficult circumstance with time.
- Try to focus on the positive memories and your loved one’s legacy. Their physical being may be gone, but their spirit lives on through you.
- Be patient and gentle with yourself as you grieve and process this significant loss. There is no timeline and your feelings are valid.
- Though it may not seem like it now, the pain will lessen in time. Reflect on the good times and the life lessons your loved one taught you. Those will help you heal and move forward.