Understanding Attended and Unattended Death in Today’s Society

Roman philosopher Cicero once stated that “the life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” Life and death are wholly intertwined. In our hearts, we all hope that our lives will at least be memorialized in the minds and hearts of those people near and dear to us. If we ponder the point, we also hope that when our own lives draw to a close, we are surrounded by those we love.

A reality about life and death in the 21st century is that not every person ends life’s journey surrounded and attended by others. An unattended death is something that happens in our society, situations in which a person dies alone.

Death is not something to be dwelt upon in an unnecessary manner. However, the time may come in which you may face the prospect of the unattended death of a family member or friend. If that is the case, you are best served by having a basic understanding of what is meant by this type of passing as well as what happens in its aftermath, including what oftentimes is referred to as unattended death cleanup.

Definition of Unattended Death

Many people understandably confuse the terms attended versus unattended death with intentional versus unintentional death. Some, but certainly not all, unattended deaths are intentional. An unattended death is one that occurs when an individual is alone, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. More often than not, death is not discovered for a matter of days or weeks, and sometimes even longer.

Understanding what is meant by an unattended death necessitates a basic understanding of an attended death. Attended death really has two meanings. First, death is attended in a broader sense when a person passes way in the presence of family and friends. Second, there is also a legal meaning to the term attended death. A death is legally attended in situations that include:

  • Patient in a hospital or medical center
  • A resident of long-term care or nursing facility
  • An individual in hospice care
  • An individual in regular contact with a primary care physician who has suffered from an extended illness
  • The individual saw a primary care physician with a 30-day period prior to death.

When death is considered attended legally, a doctor associated with the individual who passed is in a position to prepare a death certificate. As an aside, in California, is a paramedic team responds to a person who ends up passing away, a paramedic can declare death. Nonetheless, a doctor must sign the death certificate. These procedures are in the place provided there is no evidence of foul play in an attended death or if the attended death was totally unexpected.

There are four ways in which an unattended death might occur:

  • Accident
  • Homicide
  • Suicide
  • Natural Causes

Involvement of Coroner

When an unattended death occurs, the coroner becomes involved in the matter. The remains of the deceased are taken from the death scene the coroner’s office for what technically is known as a forensic examination. The examination oftentimes includes an autopsy.

The coroner’s examination typically is included within a 24 to 48-hour timeframe. At that juncture, the body of the deceased typically can be transported to a funeral home for preparation and burial. In California, the remains of a deceased person usually need to be transported from the coroner’s office within 72 hours of the completion of the forensic examination.

The coroner, or law enforcement officials, authorize the release of the death scene following an unintended death. In some cases, the place of death is considered a crime scene if a homicide is suspected. Once the release occurs, the unattended death cleanup process can commence.

Unattended Death Cleanup Process

Technically speaking, an unattended death cleanup is known as biohazard remediation and is a comprehensive, multifaceted process designed to restore the premises to a safe and fully habitable condition. The steps in the process are:

  • Cleaning
  • Sanitizing
  • Deodorizing
  • Restoration

Unattended death cleanup is best accomplished through professional biohazard remediation, undertaken by individuals who utilize appropriate gear, equipment, and supplies to accomplish the task.

Unattended Death by Accident

The most common types of accidents in California are motor vehicle and slip and fall incidents. Oftentimes, a slip and fall accident occurs in the home. In a notable number of situations, these accidents occur in a home in many instances when a person lives alone.

Other types of accidents that result in unattended deaths include:

  • Drowning
  • Choking
  • Electrocution
  • Poisoning

Unattended Death by Homicide

Some unattended deaths are the result of a homicide. For example, a person is killed by another in the home, the remains not being discovered for some time after the crime. In addition, if the precise cause of an unattended death is unclear, law enforcement and the coroner may initiate a homicide investigation.

Unattended Death by Suicide

A considerable number of unattended deaths involve suicide. The remains of the deceased are not discovered for a period of time. In most cases involving a person truly intend on taking his or her life, that individual does not broadcast those intentions or suicidal ideations to others.

Unattended Death by Natural Causes

Particularly among elderly people who live along, natural causes represent a fourth category of an unattended death. Sadly, many older people who reside by themselves do not have regular contact with other individuals. Thus, the death of a person in this situation may not be discovered for several days, or even longer.


We all need to prepare ourselves for the inevitability of death. Understanding the implications of unattended death braces you, at least to some degree, for what occurs in the aftermath of this type of passing.