‘Who were his pals, where did he go?’: solving the mysteries of those who die alone
An old man dies in a nursing home, but he isn’t who he seems: can the police piece together the life and death of Mr Lobban?
They called him Mr Lobban. That was his name, as far as anyone knew. An elderly gentleman of extreme frailty, who died one late October afternoon in 2012, as the skies darkened and the clocks were about to turn.
The Edinburgh nursing home in which he had lived out his last few years did what they always do when one of their patients is gone. They withdrew from his room and locked the door. Then they called the GP to sign the death certificate and start Mr Lobban on his final journey to the grave.
There was nothing suspicious, nothing untoward. Just a blank on his file in the section marked “next of kin”.
Edinburgh is a small city, a place of roughly half a million people that can feel like a village – scratch beneath the surface and everyone and everything seems connected. Yet there are people every day who die alone or with no apparent family, dead in their bed in a hospital ward or lying face down on their living room floor.
None of us imagines dying without any friends or family nearby. But more and more people live in single-person households. We are living longer, and many of us, inevitably, will outlast every one of those we hold dear.
Public health funerals – those organised and paid for by local authorities – have been on the rise for some years: in November 2015 research by the BBC identified a growth of 11% across the UK since 2009-10. Scotland saw one of the biggest increases: up 28% in just four years.
Having a public health, or indigent, funeral does not necessarily mean there are no next of kin; it could be that those relatives who have been identified are remote, geographically or otherwise. Or perhaps there simply isn’t enough money to pay for the service. Yet, of the 200 or so public health funerals conducted in Edinburgh each year, there will be at least two or three a month where no next of kin have been traced.
The GP noticed that Lobban seemed to have two dates of birth. And several names. Enter Mr St John Shurley and Mr Krebs
When the GP arrived at the nursing home where Mr Lobban had died, she was confident about the cause: extreme frailty, and peripheral vascular disease. Mr Lobban had been old. That was that. But there was one thing that made her pause before signing off the necessary paperwork – Mr Lobban appeared to have two dates of birth. And several names. Enter Mr St John Shurley. Also, Mr Krebs.
In Scotland, cases of unexplained or unexpected death are the responsibility of the Procurator Fiscal’s office – the Crown. As are establishing identity and cause. In practice, it is the police who step in when an investigation is required.
PC Barry Gordon works in Stirling now, but he is Edinburgh born and bred. He is a methodical man. For several years until 2013 he worked in the Edinburgh inquiry team, a group of officers dedicated to dealing with all non-suspicious and unexplained deaths in the city. It’s a very particular kind of work. As Gordon puts it, “There are some strange deaths where, because of the causes of death or where the person is similar to your age, it’s only natural to impose your own feelings on what that might be like.” As his former colleague, detective constable Steven Donaldson says, “It takes time to get used to death.”
It was PC Gordon who took the call about Mr Lobban. It was he and Donaldson – a reflective, insightful man – who tried to establish who Mr St John Shurley was. And Mr Krebs. And how the three were linked.
PC Gordon and DC Donaldson dealt with an average of two to three cases of unexpected death a day while on the inquiry team – many involved people who had been discovered alone. Some cases were more memorable than others, because of age or circumstances, or how the family reacted once they were traced. There was the person who turned out to be a stock wizard with millions in the bank and a long-lost sister in California who had not seen him for 30 years (she came over for the funeral and went home with the lot). There was the individual who died alone in squalor, with £52,000 in cash in a holdall in his living room. The man who couldn’t be identified by the photograph on his passport, because he died in summer and the window he was lying in front of faced south – the sun had disfigured his face. His flat was a tip, everything all over the floor, all the drawers empty except one in the bedroom, in which Donaldson found an immaculate set of tools. “Spanners and screwdrivers never been out of the box. Really, really neatly positioned. Really bizarre,” he says.
There was the man who died alone in squalor, with £52,000 in cash in a holdall in his living room
Early identification of the deceased is key – it is required for the death certificate and to satisfy the procurator fiscal. “You can’t register the death until you know who the person is,” Donaldson says. “But they may [also] have family out there, and you want to be able to find and tell them.”
Establishing identity is not usually a difficult matter these days – there are contacts on mobile phones, utility bills, post piled up behind the door. Sometimes, it simply involves holding a bus pass next to the face of the deceased. Failing that, for the police, it is about checking names and dates of birth against various records or, in the worst-case scenario, resorting to fingerprints or DNA.
But when it came to Mr Lobban, none of these methods proved useful. There was no official paperwork in the nursing home file that could establish beyond reasonable doubt who he was. There was no birth certificate or passport, no driving licence or former tenancy agreement. He did not appear to be known to the police, or to any religious organisation in the city. The nursing home said that he’d always had cash, but there was no indication of a bank account. Gordon reports that Mr Lobban had talked to staff at the nursing home about having a lock-up near the Bridges in the city, but there was no evidence of that either. Nor were there any marriage or birth certificates that suggested a link between any of Mr Lobban’s names, nor his two dates of birth.
What Gordon and Donaldson did have were stories from the nursing home staff: that Mr Lobban had once lived in Italy. That he had coxed in the Oxford v Cambridge boat race. That his father had been a diplomat in London. “They seemed fantastical,” Gordon says. “But then, some people have fantastical lives.”
They did manage to find a previous address. As the two police officers set off in pursuit of this lead, Mr Lobban was kept safe in a steel-lined fridge.
Edinburgh City Mortuary is an unassuming place. A 1970s building huddled at the tail end of Cowgate, an ancient chasm of a street, it is here that 90% of the individuals who die alone in the city are brought for formal identification and to establish the circumstances of death.
Vicky Squires has worked at the mortuary for more than 13 years, first as a technician, latterly as the manager. “Though I prefer the term team leader,” she says. A young woman in her 30s, wearing a discreet work shirt, the black lace tied around her neck the only outward sign that she has found her vocation. “I love this job. Every day is different. Even at school, I knew there was no danger I’d end up sitting behind a desk.”
She says with some pride that when she started, some of her colleagues suggested she wouldn’t last two weeks, because she was female. “They’ve all gone now and I’m still here.”
Six autopsies a day, more after Christmas and New Year, and at any one time the mortuary fridges will host at least two or three individuals destined for an indigent farewell. “Some of them are here for two to three months, maybe more,” Squires says. “It’s not at all uncommon – we had a case of a gentleman who came here in December 2014 and didn’t leave us until December 2015. A year to the day.”
‘I’ll always put a bobble back in their hair if they had one, or rollers for old people,’ says the mortuary manager
All the names of the deceased are registered in the mortuary ledger – a large, leather-bound book, with thick leaves made of special paper that has to last for at least 40 years. Their belongings stay with them: the clothes they came in with, any jewellery the police were not able to remove and secure. They are weighed and tagged and placed on a shelf in the fridge that will become their home until their postmortem has taken place. Then they will wait some more, until the procurator fiscal has released the case and a funeral director has been instructed to take them forward to the next stage.
“I take pride in my work,” Squires says, “regardless of whether the person was a drug user or died of natural causes. I always do my best stitching, make them clean. I’ll always put a bobble back in their hair if they came in with one, or rollers for old people.”
Most cases are routine and she doesn’t ask about their stories, but occasionally she does want to know. Her personal thing, apart from a dislike of maggots, is a soft spot for the elderly. “I’ve been told I don’t have a heart, but when elderly people come in I call them ‘my poor wee scone’. In my eyes, they shouldn’t get a full postmortem [where everything is opened, including the brain]. They’ve had their life, they’re elderly. Don’t cut them up.”
Mr Lobban’s house before he moved to the nursing home in 2008 was in the Inverleith area of the city, a leafy suburb near the Botanic Gardens. Except it turned out not to have been Mr Lobban’s house at all. He lived there for several years, but the property had been owned by the woman he lived with. She was long deceased, and was called Lobban, too. It transpired that she was his former partner, but they had never married, so there was no record of their relationship for the police to find. Apart from the fact that Mr Lobban had decided to take her name.
But Gordon and Donaldson knew then that they were on to something. With a bit more digging into the property’s records, the officers established that the house had been sold after Mr Lobban moved out. The beneficiary of the sale was his former partner’s sister. And she was still alive.
The tale they heard from the sister was familiar – one of family breakdown and estrangement after death. When his partner died, Mr Lobban’s handling of her affairs had led to some acrimony. He hadn’t notified her relatives of the death when it first occurred, and he had stayed living in the house when really it belonged to them.
“In Scotland, anyone can act on somebody’s behalf [as next of kin] if they want to approach the Crown Office to be established as such,” Gordon explains.
Lobban’s sister had no desire to take on that role – she lived in England – and besides, she was elderly herself. Still, for Gordon and Donaldson there was one piece of information she provided that was useful: the name of a school in England where Mr Lobban had taught years before.
Luckily for the officers, the school still existed. Even more unexpectedly, so did its old employment records. And they produced gold: a file for a man who had worked at the school in the 1960s with a name and a date of birth that matched one of those belonging to Mr Lobban. Here, at last, was a suggestion of his life beyond the Edinburgh nursing home where he had ended his days.
For Gordon and Donaldson, searching for Mr Lobban had been frustrating. With only a couple of names and ambiguous dates of birth to go on, it was a little like fishing in a huge ocean with a tiny rod. But now their persistence paid off. The officers approached the National Archives at Kew in London with all the information they had secured. Three names, two dates of birth, two former addresses. One of them came good: not paperwork for a Mr Lobban, but a death certificate for a woman named Sarah Cornwich, who had died in the 1970s in a hospice in Sussex.
“I remember it,” Donaldson says, “because it wasn’t too long after I was born.”
The death certificate had been signed off by her son, a man of the right age and profile to be Mr Lobban. The signature given was of a Mr St. John Shurley. The woman’s former name was Krebs.
At last the police could connect the dead man in the nursing home with a teenager who escaped Nazi Europe for a new life
We all die eventually. Some of us will do it surrounded by friends and family. Some without anyone by our side. But, however it happens, wherever it takes place, what we can know is that, in the UK, somebody, somewhere will make an effort to see that we are not forgotten. They will confirm our identity. They will make sure that the reasons for our passing are established beyond reasonable doubt. They will let our relatives know, wherever they may be and whatever the circumstances of our relationships at the time. They will see to it that, at the least, a modest but proper funeral can take place. And, perhaps most significantly, in making this effort they will ensure that at least some of the stories of our life, even in the briefest of outlines, survive.
If you search online now for Mr Lobban, formerly known as Krebs, you will find him as a boy called Robin Alfred, born on 19 July 1927 in Merano, Italy. He arrived in the UK from Austria some time between 1939 and 1942. His mother, Sarah, accompanied him at the time or arrived later, but no record was ever found of his father, Martin, despite the efforts of the Edinburgh inquiry team. That is a story yet to be told.
Robin Krebs was 21 when he was naturalised as a British citizen in 1948, a student then living in Lewes, Sussex. Even at that young age, he had an alias: Robin Iain Alfred St John Shurley. Gordon and Donaldson never did find out why but, for them, what mattered was that at last they could connect the elderly man dead in an Edinburgh nursing home with a teenager who escaped Nazi Europe and came to the UK to make a life.
Like so many other indigents, Mr Lobban’s funeral took place at Mortonhall Crematorium in Edinburgh. It was attended by a few staff from the nursing home in which he had passed away. Gordon and Donaldson did not go. “I’ve never been to one [of those funerals],” Donaldson says. “I’ve thought about it, but we’re dealing with death constantly. You have to keep a bit of a distance or it’ll start to play on your mind.”
An indigent funeral service in Edinburgh is a short and simple thing: no flowers, no hymns or speeches, just a basic coffin and a notice in the local press. The service will be presided over by a minister or celebrant from the area in which the deceased lived. And while there may be a few members of the family who come along, it could just as easily be a neighbour or an old school friend. Very occasionally there will be no attendees at all.
I’d been at one funeral where the only people were the funeral director, the deceased and me… this isn’t right
The Rev Alex McAspurren grew up an atheist in the new town of Cumbernauld. “My family were to the left end of socialism,” he says. After school, he worked as a civil engineer technician and at the passport office, at various temp jobs before getting involved in a homeless charity. Then he became a priest.
It was during his probationary training in Edinburgh that McAspurren first came across the idea of inviting members of a congregation to attend the funeral of someone they did not know. “I’d been at one [indigent funeral] where the only people attending at the crematorium were the funeral director, the deceased and myself,” he says. “You just know this isn’t right. It’s an intuitive thing. Nobody’s born to be alone.”
To the rest of us, having no apparent next of kin to attend a funeral seems sad – an indictment of society, perhaps, of how we all lead more isolated lives now. But agreeing to take on the burden of a funeral for someone from whom you are estranged can be a difficult moral decision.
Ivan Middleton used to be a social worker, but now he is a humanist celebrant. “Some newspapers like to make out that people just don’t want to pay [for an indigent funeral],” he says. “But I don’t see it like that. There are a hundred and one reasons that lead to this happening.”
It can be about money, especially with funerals costing upwards of £3,000-4,000 nowadays, but Middleton suggests there is also the fear of neighbours turning up out of the blue, of friends the relative doesn’t know asking questions about the family that they would prefer to keep private. “It can be quite uncomfortable to be the relative everyone defers to,” Middleton says. Especially if the deceased is someone who has actively made the decision to lead a solitary kind of life.
Yet as McAspurren says about the members of his congregation who take on the job of mourning a stranger, “It’s about witnessing to their faith that there is hope in this life.”
Gordon and Donaldson never did find out why Mr Lobban had ended up in Edinburgh. “All that time,” Donaldson reflects, “and what’s he done, who were his pals, where did he go? You’ve got to be curious.”
But Mr Lobban’s story didn’t end once he had been interred. Just as the inquiry team report was being completed, the local authority delivered an inventory made in 2008 for a property in Inverleith. Environmental health officers had visited the house that year, following a dispute between the resident and the owner. The resident was required to leave, but he was known as a hoarder, and environmental health had called in the local police to help.
‘It’s funny how life works out,’ says the police officer. ‘So many people die and nobody has really known them’
“Oh, I just couldn’t believe it,” says the PC who attended. “Belongings, newspapers, furniture… just everything that had been kept.” He recalls an elderly gentleman at the door and his colleague requiring a ladder to get inside, such was the amount of stuff blocking the entrance. The man at the door was known as Mr Krebs. The constable’s name was Steven Donaldson.
“It’s funny how life works out,” Donaldson says now, on realising he had met the man before. “How these things come around. So many people die and nobody has really known them.”
But when it came to Mr Lobban, formerly known as Krebs, “He was there. He existed. He had a life.”
© Mary Paulson-Ellis
First Published in the Guardian Weekend Magazine, 27 August 2016. Some names have been changed.