What If You Died And No One Knew?

David Thomson reviews a disturbing documentary, Dreams of a Life, out on DVD this week:

In January 2006, reports broke in London newspapers that Joyce Carol Vincent had been found dead in her bedsit flat in Wood Green, a northern suburb of the city. She was in her late thirties. She had been tall, vivacious and always smartly dressed—she reminded some people of Whitney Houston. She had had an Indian mother and a West Indian father; they were dead now, but Joyce had sisters. No cause of death could be ascertained because she had been dead for nearly three years. The sketch of a corpse was there on the sofa, a window was slightly open, and the television was still playing.

Many people were stopped in their tracks by the story. Was it possible in London, in a building of flats, for a person, an attractive woman, to fade into oblivion, so that no one thought to ask, "Where’s Joyce?" For nearly three years? So many people live alone in a big city, and some are old, less vivid, and without next of kin. They may be missing before they’re gone. But Joyce Vincent did not seem to fit that description. A tremor of anxiety, a fear of societal malfunction, went through London. It seemed like a warning, a measure of the times.

Update from a reader:

The same event happened in New York City a few years ago: "Neighbors Reflect on a Death No One Noticed". The similarities with the case in London are interesting. I share the article with my undergrad classes in psychology because I find it useful for encouraging discussion on a few issues in social psychology.


I didn't have the wherewithal to go and read Thomson's article about the lady found dead after three years. It wasn't because of the morbid and arresting nature of the story: that's actually quite enthralling. But I find it bewildering and depressing that a large part of the story has to do with the apparent "worth" of the woman due to her being vivacious, well-dressed and good looking, as opposed to some plain Jane.


I am a long-time Dish reader and technology entrepreneur. You might be interested to know about Plan Alerts. I designed this service primarily for people into risky sports and outdoor activities. You describe your plans, set a check-in deadline, and list contacts. If you don't reset the timer, it notifies your friends of your plans, check in, and location history. You can check in via web, text or phone (even land lines – you can record a message). You can also use it as a persistent check-in tool, so if you go AWOL for more than a day or so, it'll ping your designated contacts. The service is currently in testing and will be available for general use soon.

It's basically a version of a dead man's switch.