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The Stunning Appeal of a Story About a Man Who Died Alone

Was the story about a man who died alone or something else entirely?

When the New York Times published "The Lonely Death of George Bell," readers could not get enough of it. Within a day, it had racked up more than 1,300 comments. For several days, it sat atop the lists of the "Most Viewed" and "Most Emailed" articles.

Printed, the article goes on for 27 pages. Probably what was most important in drawing people in, though, was what came first: the "lonely death" highlighted in the title, the horrible huge picture of a totally trashed room at the top of the article, and the opening lines:

"They found him in a living room, crumpled up, on the mottled carpet. The police did. Sniffing a fetid odor, a neighbor had called 911."

This is not some random human interest story. This is a morality tale, a scare story aimed directly at anyone who would dare to live single and live alone.

The story is illustrated by 16 photos. Of the first seven, four of them are pictures of filth. It is hard to escape the implication that George Bell's life was garbage.

The reporter takes us through pages and pages of descriptions of New York City officials' often futile attempts to find George Bell's family or friends. That implication is clear, too – he doesn't have any.

Got it, single people? Stay single, live in a place of your own, and your life, too, will match the trash in George Bell's place. You, too, will die without a soul who cares about you. You'll end up "crumpled on a mottled carpet," left undiscovered until someone notices "a fetid odor."

Readers who persist past the grim beginnings, and the ominous middle, will find that George Bell's life was not exactly the horror story they were lead to believe. He did have friends and family in his life. He and three close friends had worked as movers for years. He also stayed in touch with Eleanore, a woman he had always loved. On the Valentine's Day before he died, she sent him a card with the note, "George, think of you often with love."

Eleanore married someone else, but she did not remarry after her husband died in 2002. She lived alone. Wrong move, Eleanore! The Times lets us know that she got what was coming to her – a fate like George's:

"Her life finished up a lot like his. She lived alone, in a trailer. She died of a heart attack. A neighbor who cleared her snow found her. She had gotten obese. Her brother had her creamated."

Keep reading to the very end of the article and you will discover that George Bell did have a good friend (Frank) even at the end of his life. In fact, for the 15 years they had known each other, right up to the week before George died, George and Frank met regularly at a local bar. They got together every Saturday. They went fishing, shopping, and just passed the time in each other's company. They were together buying the shrimp that was on sale at the shopping center, probably just days before George died.

The bartender, who saw George and Frank together all the time, was apparently not moved by their friendship. Instead, he said, "George was in a lot of pain. I think he was just waiting to die, had lived enough." (He was 72.)

In case we single people missed the lesson, the reporter rammed it home in a stand-alone, single-sentence paragraph:

"It was as if sadness had killed George Bell."

In addition to the 15-year friendship that lasted until the day he died, George Bell also had something else – money. His bank accounts had $215,000. His apartment sold for $225,000 and his car for $9,500. If he wanted to live some other way, he could have afforded that.

Toward the beginning of the article, we are told that of the 50,000 people who die each year in New York, for a small number of them:

"No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names."

So George's friend of 15 years doesn't count as someone who mourned the end of his life?

Remember, George had just spent time with Frank right before he died. They had gotten together, as they always had, since 2004. So George's demise got called a "lonely death" in the heading because no one was there the moment he drew his last breath?

Let me tell you about my father's death. He died on the cold, hard floor of the bathroom of a hospital room, after midnight, having collapsed from an abdominal aneurysm. I don't know how long he lay there, helpless and all alone, until a nurse discovered him.

But he had a wife and four of us "kids" who would have done anything for him. No one would ever write a headline about his "lonely death." But in those final moments, was he really any less alone or lonely than George Bell? Or maybe we're just not allowed to think that way about people who are married – especially if they are married with children. Those people did everything right. There are no lessons to be learned. They did not live single and they did not live alone. Nothing to see here.

The Times reporter put a tremendous amount of time into the reporting and writing of the story about Poor George. The paper could have saved its resources and simply asked to reprint the relevant section of Eric Klinenberg's book, Going Solo. He reported, in detail, on what happened after Mary Ann died alone, in much the same way that the Times did with George Bell. At the very end of the section on Mary Ann, Klinenberg describes conversations with two of her neighbors. One said she had no visitors, ever, and seemed sad and lonely. The other said, "She was a nice person. All the time she talked to us. She talked with my son."

Here's how Klinenberg ended his story of Mary Ann. I think it is the proper moral of Mary Ann's story and George's:

"Talking with [the two neighbors] helps me understand something about what happens when truly isolated people die alone. In most cases, we can't actually know whether their solitude was a source of sadness, or satisfaction. Whether they lived and died without friends or family nearby because they preferred it that way, or because something went wrong once and they couldn't get it right. When we hear about someone like Mary Ann, we can't help but project some of our own feelings into her story. And our reactions may say as much about each of us as they do about the deceased."

[Notes. (1) Heard enough about dying and want to read more about innovative and fulfilling ways of living? Take a look at How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. (2) Thanks to Jeanine for the heads-up about this NY Times article. (3) In a few days, I'll publish a post elsewhere on why I think the Times published this particular story told in this particular way, and what it says about the profound changes sweeping society and our reactions to them.]

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