Living and Dying Alone

When a man who bought a house for the value of its unpaid taxes noticed that the previous owner’s car remained on the property, he asked Sandy Run, SC deputies to investigate.

Inside, they discovered the body of Mary Sue Merchant, 74. She had died of natural causes – 18 months earlier.

Civic and utility workers had done their duty. They’d cut off her electricity for non-payment. I’m sure they sent her a notice before they did so. Then, they sold her property at auction when her taxes went unpaid.

But no one talked to her.

Merchant was a widow, had no children and had lost touch with her sister long before. Her husband – who died years earlier – was a retired prison guard who feared retribution from prisoners, so they lived quietly and reclusively.

The awful sadness is, as the sheriff said in a 2009 Associated Press story, “This lady had absolutely nobody who cared enough to check on her.”

Earlier that same year a 93-year-old man froze to death inside his Bay City, MI home. Bay City Electric Light & Power had recently installed a device to restrict Marvin Schur’s electricity use because the chronically late payer owed about $1,000. The device would shut off electricity when the bill reached a certain point and could only be reset by the homeowner. No one told Schur it had been installed and he slowly froze to death in his unheated home.

A neighbor who found Schur dead said his windows were covered with ice – on the inside.

Investigation later showed he had money to pay the bills. He just hadn’t.

A surveillance camera video a few years ago became a YouTube hit when it showed 78-year-old pedestrian Angel Torres struck by a car and flipped upside down while trying to cross a street in Hartford, Conn. He was left severely injured and motionless in the middle of the road as cars passed and bystanders watched. One motorcycle driver circled, looked, and drove off. A few drivers called 911, but no one stopped to help.

Have we become so calloused, so self-absorbed that people live and die in quiet desperation all around us with no one even knowing if they’re dead? Or if they ever lived?

You cannot be responsible for the world. But you can take the initiative to know your neighbors, their names, their situations, whether or not they have someone who cares if they live or die.

That could be a good senior adult ministry for your church: to create a daily calling circle for people who live alone, to check in on them, let them know someone cares, to help if the utilities get cut off or the cupboard is bare.

One day you will call and no one will answer. But your friend will have lived every day knowing she was not alone.

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