A mummy, a ghost, a bad death

016It has taken me several days to try to figure out why Los Angeles Times reporter Erika Hayasaki’s Column One feature story, “He died in vast isolation,” has been haunting me.

For starters, it’s an awesome story — full of stunning images and quotes. This starts with the very first words and never lets up:

The blind man died alone in front of his television in a lounge chair, near a table covered with medicine bottles wrapped in rubber bands and a cereal box stuffed with mail. Each rubber band marked a prescription he recognized by touch. Each envelope contained information he could not read. He never received letters, only bills.

A neighbor called police after she noticed a pipe had burst at his house. His double-door garage was cloaked in a frozen waterfall. Police discovered the man inside, still as the icy water. His television still buzzing, his living room blanketed with dead flies. His electric bills had gone unpaid, but the company for some inexplicable reason had not shut off power. Warm air had preserved his face almost perfectly, like a dried rose.

They found him 13 months after his final breath.

Headlines called him the “Mummified Man.”

The sad, lonely death of the 70-year-old Vincenzo “Ricardo” drew coverage all over the world. As it turns out, many journalists couldn’t even get his name right. His last name was Riccardi, not Ricardo.

The more I thought about this case, the more I kept coming back to a phrase that religious believers used to use to describe a more fitting way of departing this life — “The Good Death.” Back in the early 1990s, I even taught a seminar at Denver Theological Seminary on this concept and how the elements of The Good Death clash with many modern American values, yet also echo many of the deepest fears of modern Americans. The bottom line: If you ask many people what they fear most about dying, they will say that they fear dying alone, especially alone in a hospital, or alone because their families have disintegrated.

They fear, in other words, “The Bad Death.”

Thinking about this reminded me of an interview I did a decade ago with Johann Christoph Arnold, the leader of the Bruderhof Communities, about the death of his mother. That led to a Scripps Howard News Service column that included these images:

The matriarch of the Bruderhof community learned she had cancer of the lymph nodes late in 1979 and her condition rapidly deteriorated, accompanied by tremendous pain. After decades of serving others, she also found it hard to be an invalid who needed constant care. Still, there were transcendent moments. Throughout her five-month ordeal, children gathered to sing hymns and pray at her bedroom window. …

The inspiration flowed both ways. As the children learned about her suffering, many wrestled with questions of life, death and eternity. Annemarie Arnold knew this and, on her deathbed, prayed for those making life-changing decisions on the other side of the windowpane. No one found it strange that children found inspiration in the dying days of an elderly woman. No one found it strange that she took comfort in the fact that her life and death inspired others.

Some of her final words were, “The children. The children.”

images 03The words and images in Hayasaki’s story are completely different, offering an almost mythic depiction of loneliness, despair and shattered relationships. You ask, “Where was his family?” That mystery is partially answered. “Didn’t he have friends?” Yes, he had an amazingly selfless caregiver — Adriana Molina — who helped him as long as he was willing to be helped.

But it’s hard not to ask, “Didn’t he have a church?” There is even a haunting hint in this story that answering this question would only lead to another schism in this man’s heart and soul.

Thus, there is this near the end:

In October 2005, Molina showed up at Riccardi’s house, and no one was home. She returned a few days later. Still no answer. The mail had piled up, so she thought something must be wrong. She left a business card on his door, first writing on the back: “If somebody knows something about Vincent please let me know.” She notified police. Two days later, an officer called to tell her Riccardi was in a psychiatric hospital.

Molina went to pick him up. Riccardi told her he was trying to open a can when he accidentally sliced his neck. He called 911, but when officers arrived they thought he had tried to kill himself. Molina never found out whether it was an accident.

She remembered that Riccardi asked hospital staff to return the rosary beads he kept in his left pocket and a gold Virgin Mary medallion that he wore around his neck. She asked why the necklace was so important to him.

“My mom gave it to me,” she recalled Riccardi saying, “and I want to have it with me when I die.”

And that’s just about all we know, outside the haunting mystery of how a man ends up alone, turning into a mummy in his chair while the television set buzzes in the background.

The story ends with a poem at that someone posted about “The Mummified Man” online:

Vincenzo Ricardo lived all alone
Diabetic, and blind — left all on his own.
For a year, no one saw him
For a year no one cared
So a man sat dead, while his TV blared …
Out of sight, out of mind,
As the days moved forward
Just a crabby old man
Whom the neighbors ignored …
He was just an old man
Who needed a friend,
No one deserves
This lonely an end.

So this was a news story about The Bad Death.

Would it be news if someone tried to write about The Good Death?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dan Berger

    Wow. God forgive me, but I was so strongly reminded of the conversation in the fence’s shop, in the Fourth Stave of A Christmas Carol.

    Very moving story, though.

    As for your final question, don’t people write about The Good Death on every obit page? “So-and-so died surrounded by family and friends.” That’s how my father died.

    Though I haven’t seen that phrase much, lately.

  • Dale

    A very disturbing story that lays bare some American social pathologies.

    Yes, he had an amazingly selfless caregiver — Adriana Molina — who helped him as long as he was willing to be helped.

    It’s telling that she’s an immigrant from Colombia, and it was inconceivable to her to abandon an elderly man, no matter what he had done to his family. I also thought the reporter included interesting details about Molina’s life, such as her physically abusive father; yet she couldn’t understand how Riccardi’s family could just disown him. In contrast, his American family says things like this:

    Riccardi’s sister-in-law, Dina Fayad, said, “I don’t know how he was living. I hadn’t talked to him in years.”

    tmatt said:

    But it’s hard not to ask, “Didn’t he have a church?”

    Or perhaps “Didn’t a church have him?” We Americans have an underlying assumption that people are free to choose their own behavior. It’s pretty apparent from the story that he suffered from psychosis and was very difficult to deal with. He needed people in his life that wouldn’t let go, no matter how unpleasant he became, and that was understandably too much of a burden for Molina alone. Could she have gotten help from a church? What would she have done in the same situation in Colombia?

    By the way, tmatt, your link to a google search inadvertantly picked up a parallel story in Pravda:

    Dwellers of an apartment building in the city of Tula, central Russia, were horrified to learn of a discovery made in one of the apartments. The mummified body of a tenant was found in a sitting position in the kitchen of his apartment. The tenant had been dead for six years.

    Whereas Mr. Riccardi suffered the indignity of decomposition in the company of a blaring television, Mr. Ledevev was found slumped over on the kitchen table next to a bottle of vodka and an empty glass.

    Synchronicity, huh?

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    Thomas Lynch’s “The Undertaking: Notes from the Dismal Trade” is a brilliant collection of essays on deaths good and bad from an undertaker who’s also a poet. And also, for the religious folks here at get religion, an observant Catholic. Is it news? Probably not. But it’s definitely literature.

  • http://hijabman.com HijabMan

    “They found him 13 months after his final breath.”

    i cant imagine, how he was alone for over a year and NO ONE realizing he was missing…

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Since he was Catholic– a priest, deacon, or eucharistic minister should have been bringing him communion weekly or monthly. But that would be predicated on two things: First, that he would accept visits from the parish, and Second, that the parish was notified of his situation. Unfortunately, many Catholic parishes are very large and the staff can sometimes need to be contacted or informed –especially if the person had been inactive before becoming housebound. I would be interested in seeing some follow-up about how Catholic parishes–and other churches–aid or contact elderly people of their own church or older people
    in general.

  • Jerry

    Dan,

    My father-in-law died a “good death”. Being with him during his last days was more rewarding than I can say. His last words, “I’m ready now”, still resonate with me. God grant that I might go the same way when my time comes.

    I believe some have called how we treat death the one unspeakable thing in the US. We can discuss everything sex included in gory detail, but not death.

    Hopefully this sad story will help break that silence.

  • Stephen A.

    The portions quoted here are quite beautiful and I’ll have to go and read the rest.

    Intrigued, I checked out the Pravda story and, as expected, it was exceedingly bleak – even to the point of showing a photo of the mummy in the apartment. Of course, no religion is mentioned in that story, nor did anyone write poetry about that man.

    Frankly, the images drawn by the other writer’s words are far more powerful than the photo of a mummified man slumped over a kitchen counter, an empty Vodka bottle nearby. A thousand good, poetic words actually is worth one sensational photo.

  • Camassia

    The church question is a good one. Recently in my church, a man who’s been suffering from colon cancer mentioned a similar case in Germany a few years ago, and contrasted it favorably with how much support and care he’s gotten from our congregation.

    However, it’s also true that physical illness is a lot easier to deal with than mental. Riccardi’s mental debility seems to have been in a sort of gray zone — not actually incapacitated enough to be hospitalized, but crazy enough to make himself unbearable to live with. Honestly, I don’t know how a church deals with people like that, though I’m sure some of them have.

    Anyway, I agree it’s a fascinating story. There are a lot of directions one could take it in.

  • MaryMargaret

    I find the idea of anyone dying alone, without anyone to care as he takes his last breath–heartbreaking. But, in a larger sense, no one dies alone, and everyone dies alone. God is always present, so no one is truly alone. And, no matter how many other human persons surround one, that last step must be taken alone. There really is no other way. That is, I believe, our blessing and our curse. May God have mercy on us all and grant us peace.

  • Joseph Fox

    Mary Margaret, You are truly blessed with insight and ability to express it. Thanks

  • MaryMargaret

    Joseph, Thank you so much. Usually, when I get the courage to post, especially about such a difficult issue, I am afraid to read comments about my comment. Too sensitive? Probably. This is a subject that I feel deeply about, having had far too much experience with it. I tried to express my strongly held beliefs about death in such a way that I would offend no one. Once again, thank you for the very gracious compliment.

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