When There Is No Family

Sunflowers, photo courtesy of jamiejohnson6/Flickr

Sunflowers, photo courtesy of jamiejohnson6/Flickr

I was inspired to write this post this morning when I heard Michael Krasny’s interview of the Reverend Glenda Hope on Forum.  She is retiring to “dance with God” after 40 years of ministering to the poor and the troubled in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and its surrounds.

In her interview, she talked about honoring the people who died in her community virtually alone with no one to bury them. Some were young who died violently or whose drug addiction had caught up with them fatally. But others were homeless, derelict, forgotten.  Some were living alone plagued by their own demons.  She felt that a proper funeral might somehow restore their dignity in death what maybe they did not have while living.

She recalled one old woman well into her 80’s who died with no family. She lived alone in a hostel and went from one free kitchen to another to keep herself from starving. After she died, they had discovered that she had over $100,000 in her name. She never used it. The Reverend said that many people are so fearful of ending up with no money and sacrificing so much for that “rainy day” that might come.

I remembered hearing on NPR a few years ago about the increasing trend of people dying alone in Europe. One such report was presented in Soundprint entitled, The Lonely Funeral, back in 2010.  It was an account of what some people have done for those who passed away with no friends or family in Amsterdam.  Some of them are the last in a family to die, or have been cut off all their family ties.  One poet, Frank Starik, took it upon himself to write eulogies for them. Here’s a sample of one such eulogy he wrote:

“Who then, loved you? In which rooms did you sleep,
who kissed you goodnight, who’ll wear out your shirt?
Who will want to stand where you once stood?
Who now takes the road you took?”

The entire topic also reminded me of a Chinese feature film in 2012 called “Getting Home.” It was about a poor construction worker who carried his dead colleague on his back across the country in an effort to get him a proper burial.

In Britain, the growing number of elderly people living alone by choice or circumstance, and dying alone has been increasing (up to 1/3 or 2.5M of the current home-aloners apparently fit this category). Their newspapers have been inundated with horror accounts of people having been dead for a year before their bodies are discovered in their own homes.  This has been a well-recognized trend and so the calls to address it have been growing.

I also remembered an NPR news feature last year of how in Bernalillo County, Albuquerque, Deacon Pablo Lefebre and his community try to provide an honorable funeral to many unnamed unclaimed bodies in his county.  There is an annual program wherein, the unclaimed and unidentified deceased whose remains have been in county possession for at least two years, would be cremated and buried in a common grave.  In lieu of names, a sample headstone reads:

We grow afraid of what we might forget. We will find peace and value through community in knowing that we belong to each other. Dedicated to the Citizens of Bernalillo County.

This post was inspired by the Daily Post’s  Weekly Photo Challenge: Family.  I  know that it would have been easier to post something about human connectedness and togetherness.  Instead, I wanted to talk about what of those who are alone, who lived alone, who died alone, for whatever reason.  I feel uplifted by the efforts some people have made to give them their dignity by honoring them at their final send-off.  More importantly, I see it as an effort by those still living to embrace them back into a community or even a family.

Better late than never, right?


This entry was posted in Culture, Death, Funeral, Funeral Services, Laid To Rest, Lonely Funeral, Weekly Photo Challenge and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to When There Is No Family

  1. moi says:

    It does seem to be an ever increasing problem, people with no families, or far from their families, people who are lonely etc and it seems strange that people can be lonely in a city full of people. (for those that live in a city of course).

    Then there is the scourge of (un)social media where people are locked into their own little world of facebook and twitter, dishing out excerpts of their lives so that people on the other end of a phone or a computer can read and respond.

    I see people walking along in London, not even looking where they are going, their face buried in a phone reading their latest email, twitter update or facebook notification. Being social is getting more and more unsocial so more people become lonely, they will live alone and die alone.


  2. Lucid Gypsy says:

    This is a topic that needs to be tlaked about a lot more. Our elders must be returned to the high status they so deserve and were given in the past.


  3. auntyuta says:

    Reverend Glenda Hope I am sure gave a lot of people HOPE. There is a lot of sadness in this world but also HOPE. I do think it is very sad that more and more people seem to end up living and dying without family. But even those without family maybe sometimes come across someone they can call family or friend.


    • likeitiz says:

      Agree, Aunty! If you listen to some of the reports I have linked to in this post, you will see that a lot of these people are the last remaining persons in their families. Their loved ones have died. They may have kin who are only distantly related. Others are people who have battled depression and health problems that have isolated them from others.

      I remember when I was in high school, I came home and found my grandmother crying to my mother. One of the women she played cards with once a week had died of a stroke. She was so heartbroken. But what she said made me even more alarmed. She was telling my mother, what is the use being alive when her peers were all dying. Her only sister had died a year before. Another cousin not too long after. I decided to spend a little more time with her to keep her company. She lived with us when she was in town. She lived another 10 years after that.


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