What happens when you die alone

What happens to the people who die alone with no-one to mourn them? A fascinating article on the BBC website followed the work of the Scottish Ultimus Haeres Unit (last heir in Latin) to find out…

Reporter Andrew Pickens spent time with the team, attending the funeral of Carol (not her real name) a 67-year-old woman who died without an obvious next of kin or a valid Will. To try to identify Carol’s next of kin, the UHU team carried out a search of her tenement flat in Glasgow.

The UHU is part of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland.

Find a will

The main aim of the search is to find a Will, but the team also looks for anything that might tell them about the deceased’s family or relatives. A full coffee cup and ashtray indicated how suddenly Carol had been taken ill.

The team did not find a Will, but they discovered what looked like a wedding photograph. They established Carol hadn’t been a native of Glasgow and thought she might have had a son, but the only relative they managed to trace was a niece who didn’t want to come to the funeral.

Pickens was the only one who attended—a plain pine coffin, two bouquets of flowers, no minister and a ‘service’ that was over in seven minutes.


Another case related to a man called Robert Chalmers, who died alone in an Edinburgh hospital last year. When a public notice was put out, a genealogy firm traced Janet Bishop, the daughter of one of Robert’s cousins—coincidentally, a genealogist herself.

She’d heard of Robert through her mum but when she realised he had died, she found it strange that he had not left a Will.

Robert had lived in a flat in Edinburgh’s new town, one full of art, antiques and expensive watches. He’d owned a flooring company, and Janet found a lot of photos of what she assumed to be ex-girlfriends.

Money left over split between relatives

His flat has since been sold and the money left over will be split between his distant relatives.

In another case, the unit found £16,000 in cash in one man’s house. Gerry (not his real name) had died in a care home. In the article, the locum minister said he often put more effort into funerals for those who die all alone.

The UHU’s workload has increased in recent years, with the unit dealing with 540 cases last year, a 66 percent rise on 2016-17. Cold winters and hot summers are thought to be part of the reason for the rise.

In addition, the increased digitalisation of our lives is making the team’s work harder. As more and more of our lives are managed online, finding biscuit tins full of important paperwork or old personal phone directories are becoming rarer.

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