Decomposed bodies found at home are on the rise in England and Wales
Despite overall improved mortality rates, the number of people found at home so decomposed that it is impossible to determine their cause of death is on the rise in parts of the UK. A new study led by University of Oxford researchers tries to parse the cause.
The study examined data from the UK's Office of National Statistics (ONS). To comb through the records and arrive at decomposition numbers, the researchers used two proxy codes assigned to deaths via the WHO's International Classification of Diseases. One is code R98, which stands for "unattended deaths." The other is R99, which stands for "other ill-defined and unknown causes of mortality," which is the only code that can be applied when a death is indicated as decomposed or unascertained.
Reasoning that these two codes could stand in as a proxy to identify badly decomposed bodies found at home, the researchers say that if someone died in a hospital, it would be highly unlikely that the cause of death would be unknown. Also, they say that if a dead body was discovered outside the home, the result would likely be some kind of trauma, which a post-mortem could ascertain. Still, the research team does acknowledge the limits of using this coding as a proxy for their research.
"To our knowledge, the ICD-10 codes R98 and R99 (and equivalents) have not previously been used as a proxy for severe decomposition," wrote the researchers in a paper that's been published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. "These codes will miss those cases where the body is decomposed but with postmortem findings, which can still establish a defined cause of death," they added. "However, we cannot say with certainty that these codes are a good proxy for advanced decomposition."
That being said, using the proxy codes, the researchers did uncover a steady rise in the number of undefined deaths due to decomposition during the 41-year study period. Men were almost twice as likely to be found in a decomposed state. Men also saw a higher spike in this category particularly in the 1990s and 2000s, even though overall mortality rates were improving at the time.
The study also found that deaths at home across all ages climbed from about 0.15% of deaths from all causes to just over 0.3%, and undefined deaths just about quadrupled during the study period.
The researchers conclude that the rise in undefined deaths as a result of corpses going undiscovered for long periods of time points to issues of societal neglect and isolation.
“Many people would be shocked that someone can lie dead at home for days, weeks or even longer, without anyone raising an alarm among the community they live in,” said study co-author Theodore Estrin-Serlui from Imperial College NHS Healthcare Trust. “The increase in people found dead and decomposed suggests wider societal breakdowns of both formal and informal social support networks even before the pandemic. They are concerning and warrant urgent further investigation.”