What If You Died At 38 But No One Found You For 3 Years?

An absorbing new companion website to a documentary about Joyce Vincent asks uncomfortable questions about life, death, and loneliness.

Crazy story: In 2006, housing officials broke into a north London flat only to discover the body of a young woman surrounded by a pile of half-wrapped Christmas presents, her television set still flickering away. Joyce Vincent was her name, and she had been dead for a long time. Like a really long time. Those presents? They were for Christmas 2003.

Here’s the thing: She didn’t fit the profile of the kind of person who might die alone. She wasn’t old. She wasn’t a recluse. She wasn’t a junkie. The mystery of how a 38-year-old woman who once hobnobbed with celebrities and had a high-powered job at Ernst & Young wound up dead and forgotten is the subject of a new movie, Dreams of a Life, by Carol Morley.

To promote the film, the game-design studio Hide&Seek has developed Dreams of Your Life, a moving companion website. Hide&Seek had the foresight to note that the gruesome appeal of Vincent’s tale lies in the solipsistic questions it raises: What if that had been me? Could something like that ever happen to me? "Because it’s a story that says so much about isolation and loneliness, we wanted to make a web experience that in some way kept you company," Hide&Seek’s Margaret Robertson tells Co.Design.

So the site asks visitors to spend about a half hour answering deeply personal, occasionally disturbing, and sometimes funny questions about their own lives: "Do you have friends?" "If you died, how long would it take for someone to find you?" "If an armed gunman broke in and held you hostage, would you take a bullet for a coworker? Or would you be happy to tie them up and see them shouted at?"

[click to visit the site]

The text was written by A.L. Kennedy, a Scottish author famous for her dark sensibility, and appears onscreen like a hand-scrawled note, as if Joyce Vincent herself were penning missives from the beyond. Morbid commentary ("…all you can be sure of about life is that it kills you in the end") and details about Vincent’s life and death are interspersed here and there. And as you proceed through the text, the website’s background image—a window with a photo pinned up and a jar of flowers on the sill—shifts subtly to indicate the passing of seasons. The flowers die. Snow gathers in the window. If you look closely, you might even notice a dead bird in the trees.

All of this is designed to make you reflect on death—a rather troubling thought in the middle of the workday, when normally you’d just be checking Facebook or paying your credit-card bill online. But the gentle provocation is the point. "We wanted to make a website that looked nothing like a website, and gave people a little respite from all of that noise and information overload," Robertson says. "Our aim was to make something that would give people a chance to think about the people in their lives and think about whether or not there were any changes that they wanted to make about their degree of connectedness." There’s something sadly true about that: The best way to learn about the perils of not connecting with the people around you is to spend a half an hour on an awesomely absorbing website, not connecting with the people around you.

[Images courtesy of Hide&Seek]

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  • Dracul Jan Ivanescu

    I live in supported houseing and so do my friends my bills are paid in person by the month and every year we have to stand a houseing inspection where a inspector comes to see the your home is a home and the landlord is doing his job for upkeep. Also to prevent the type of thing like this story from happening. They LOVE to see you month to month for paying your bills IN PERSON. Now I see why. Shout out to the ladies at the city untility office who see me every month by the 8th:P

  • Melissa ShoeDiva Stephens

    She lived In subsidized housing because she was abused, her bills were paid by a third party..only when she was behind in her portion o f the rent £2,400 did they come to repossess her flat. Very sad.

  • Urbancoyote

    I suppose theres a possibility people did notice she was missing, but she never gave her address to anyone seeing as she was in a womens refuge flat. She wouldnt want this mysterious abusive boyfriend finding her. As for the bills, well, as has been said, if she had enought cash in her bank account, the payments would have been covered for a while.

  • daz

    im thinking she must have had direct debt through her bank to pay for electric and gas bills and then the question is did she have enough money in her bank to pay for the direct debt and was it the same with her rent payments its a very sad story but i 
    could under stand how it could happen to any of us its a self centred world i think there is a big lesson for us to learn here  the story hopefully will inspire us all

  • AfternoonNapper

    Absolutely fascinating. I encourage those who read this story to visit, which is the site for National Healthcare Decisions Day. NHDD addresses issues regarding death and dying, including making plans for the process. There also is a wonderful TweetChat (#EOLchat) and a Death With Dignity (#DWDchat) chat on Thursday nights.

  • chris zanf

    I saw this film tonight and Ms Morley got no answer from the utility companies as to why they had no cut off the electricity.

    If you see the film (and I highly recommend that you do) the story is not quite as simple as first impressions give. It says this on wikipedia:

    After Morley tracked down and interviewed people who had known her, they described a beautiful, intelligent, socially active woman, an "upwardly mobile, a high flyer", who they assumed "was off somewhere having a better life than they were" During her life she had met figures such as Nelson Mandela, Ben E. King, Gil Scott-Heron, and Betty Wright; and had also been to dinner with Stevie Wonder. One further mystery surrounding her death was how and why she ended up in a shelter in Haringey for victims of domestic violence; she entered the shelter sometime after 2001, when she quit her well-paid job – colleagues were unsure of her reason for leaving her job. She never took drugs and did not have a drinking problem.

  • Hal1950

    it's a beautiful website but I'll be darned if I can figure out how to enter text.

  • Guest

    In the UK most of the rent and utilities are paid via direct debit. If she had enough in her combined bank accounts for the direct debits to go through for a while, it would be perfectly feasible for the electricity to have remained on and the rent to have remained paid for a period after her death without anyone noticing anything unusual. And if she didn't have an automatic central heating, then it's quite possible it was basically only the tv using electricity that evening. 

  • chimp

    If she was living in subsistence housing, her utilities might've been subsidized. Do they do that in the UK?

  • Theobachan

    I was thinking the SAME EXACT THING that Someone else had said .
    *who was paying her electric bill ?*
    someone had to in order for her t.v. to be on flickering .
    I find this really bazar ! 
    Did she not have friends that would call her , or go to her home and check in on her ? Did she not have family ? Did any one NOT have a key ?
    This is really bothersome .......

  • Hassan

    personally... dying alone doesn't bother me but wat does is, neighboring a dead body for over 6 months. So, I will make it a point to say hello to my neighbor more often.

  • Tom Boros

    I don't understand either, who paid electric bill for three years as article says tv set was still flickering ..huh 

  • ??

    I just don't understand. If there were people in her life she was close enough to to be buying them christmas presents, how could they not have missed her? For THREE YEARS?

  • Doug

    Rerefencing a BBC article on the topic shows that the building where she lived was not best. As usual death is about the living and not the dead - it is sad that she dies alone, but she is dead - it is only sad to the living.

  • Unionguy908

    She didn't have a landlord expecting rent?  or an electric bill that was never paid and shut off utilities???  No build up of postal mail?  NO SMELL OF ROTTING FLESH COMPLETELY STINKING UP THE BUILDING?!?!?!?! C'MON!!!!!!

  • Kjwhitehead4

    Maybe in some morbid way this explains why I got married and had kids - outside of being completely in love and wanting to have kids with my hubby - I did not want to be alone!

  • Leigh Kramer

    interesting concept...glad I'm amazingly connected or otherwise this would freak me out!