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A death unseen
In searching for answers about a man’s lonely burial in Manchester, I discovered uncomfortable details about his life — or so I thought
It was a beautiful day for a funeral. The horse chestnut trees in Southern Cemetery cast wide shadows across the grass. As I stood in the sunshine, squinting up at the cloudless wash of sky, sweat needled the back of my neck.
There were eight of us waiting for Anthony Doran, better known as Tony, to arrive. Only one of us had ever met him. He lived in a small two-bedroom flat, on the top floor of an apartment building on Stockport Road in Levenshulme. He died in late May this year, aged 53. For three months, his body had been stored in a funeral home fridge while the police tried to find his next of kin.
I first came across Tony when I saw a post in a local Facebook group asking for mourners to attend his funeral. It said he was estranged from his family, and that he died quite young. “If anyone has some spare time to attend his funeral service…let’s give him a good send off.” The post moved me, but it also aroused my curiosity. I sent a message saying that I would be there.
The funeral was due to start at 10:30 in the morning. As the minutes ticked down, no relatives or friends appeared at the gates of the cemetery. As we waited, I chatted with the celebrant Hayley Cartwright, who had written the Facebook post. She was wearing a short-sleeved tea dress, printed with black roses and a black sash tied around her waist. She’s an actor — she plays the celebrant Hazel on Coronation Street — and during the Covid lockdowns she trained up to do the role in real life.
Hayley told me she didn’t know where Tony was going to be buried, but this was often the case for “public health funerals”, the term used when no next of kin can be traced for a person, or a family is unwilling to arrange the burial. They were once called “pauper’s funerals”, before that term became outdated.
After he died and nobody came forward, Tony became the responsibility of Manchester City Council, whose statutory duty it was to administer his estate and make sure he was buried properly. Tony was referred to the council on the 27th May, three days after his death.
If you die in Manchester without any relatives to organise a private funeral, and nothing is known about your wishes for your send-off, the council may well bury you in a shared public grave without a service. The cost of that final committal to the ground is £194. “If there is no next of kin, and an estate, a referral will be made to the Duchy of Lancaster,” a council spokesperson explains. “If the belongings are of no saleable value, we will inform the housing provider that we have no claim.”
Tony’s service and interment at the graveside would have cost £834, and it came about because of his known wish to have a funeral. He was buried in a section of the cemetery that is reserved for public burials. Tony got his own plot rather than being put into a shared grave — a worker at Southern Cemetery told me that’s probably because there was enough money in his estate to pay for it. Lots of people who are buried in the public section have no headstones to mark who they were.
Hayley hadn’t done many public health funerals, so she could recall the names of the men who died in Manchester with no one to mourn them: there was Billy Cousins, who was Scottish; she found a bagpipe player for the funeral. “We [bag]piped Billy into the crem,” she says. Then there were Terence Dean, Harold Jones and Peter Knight — she lists their names to me, as if she still hopes someone might read this and come forward to acknowledge their lives. “A lot of the funerals I conduct are for people who have had troubled pasts,” she says, mentioning drug problems and mental health struggles.
Hayley posts in local Facebook groups inviting strangers to come along. “That person wouldn’t have had a single soul otherwise,” she said. “It’s important they don’t go on their last journey alone — everyone’s life matters.”
She says that for one of her public health funerals, 30 people who saw her post on Facebook came along. But that wasn’t a typical turnout. Her Facebook post for Tony attracted lots of comments — people saying how sad it was; how they’d be there. But when it came to the day, only her friends showed up — one man and six women.
The only person at the graveside who knew Tony was Dan, who had been his support worker for three years, helping him to live with his mental illness. At the time of his death, Tony was living in an apartment block run by Creative Support, an organisation that helps people with learning disabilities and mental health illnesses to live independently.
One of Hayley’s friends, Noreen, brought a bouquet of white roses, with a note written on behalf of everyone. “Anthony Doran,” it read. “A Northern Soul. You hadn’t met us yet but we love you. Keep the faith xxx.”
Tony arrived on time at 10.29am in a sleek hearse. His oak coffin was plain, with four brass handles, two at the feet and two at the shoulder. An artificial bouquet was nestled along the outside of it. The funeral director, David, knew Hayley had a habit of inviting strangers to funerals and sometimes greets her with “What gang have you got today?”
The formalities this time were brief. He and Hayley discussed the route to the plot. “Is that everyone, then?” David asked.
We started the slow procession behind the hearse on foot, but then he climbed out and asked us, not unkindly, if we had cars. Southern Cemetery is the second largest cemetery in Europe, spanning about 190 acres; they were on a schedule, and walking to the grave was no good.
I climbed into the car with Gill, one of Hayley’s friends. After a few minutes, we pulled up under a green arbour of lime trees. To my right, parched weeds sprang up between headstones. On my left was the public section of the cemetery. Tony’s grave, recently dug, was edged with planks and spooling ropes. It suddenly struck me, as I looked at the surrounding plots — which without their clutches of decayed flowers and faded trinkets would be indiscernible from the trodden grass — that most of them were unmarked.
As we waited for Tony to be carried to the graveside, Gill murmured softly, “See? There is more of us that care, than those who don’t.” The coffin was shouldered, and our procession followed.
“We come together from the diversity of our grieving to gather in the warmth of this community,” Hayley began. “May we hold fast to the conviction that what we do with our lives matters, and that a caring world is possible.” Looking down over the coffin, she continued: “May you forever be blessed with peace and understanding and may you come to the end of your journey with gentleness and joy.”
It was a lovely service — filled with warmth, humour, and dignity. For 20 minutes, it felt like we had all been friends with Tony. Hayley gives each funeral personal touch, even if it means gleaning tiny scraps of information about the dead. Tony liked animals and used to have a cat. He liked playing video games, and watching British gangster films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It was Dan, who had known Tony, who helped Hayley with the personal details.
As the service drew to a close, I stared hard at the grass, my throat suddenly feeling very tight. “We honour the person you will always be,” Hayley said.
Tony was lowered into the ground and we recited the Lord’s Prayer. We sent him off to Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You’, blasting out of a black portable CD player. David held out a silver bucket of soil and one by one, we threw in a handful over the coffin. As we dispersed, two cemetery workers picked up their spades and set to work.
‘He kept himself to himself’
I would have left Tony’s story there. But in the weeks after his funeral, he often found his way into my thoughts. Sometimes I would be caught off guard and start to cry. It was a grief that crept up on me when I least expected it: in the supermarket; at home; on the tram.
When I felt my eyes pricking with tears, I wondered: how could I mourn somebody I had never known? I had been to funerals before — had mourned family members whose deaths were a relief because they had been suffering. But those funeral services were packed. Despite the grief, afterwards, there had been laughter and noise as anecdotes were passed around from relative to relative in a room with sandwiches and tea. It was troubling to me that somebody could die and not have anyone to mourn them.
A few weeks after the funeral, I put Tony’s name into Google. I had been planning to write a short piece just about the funeral, and the sad phenomena of people who die alone. My editor was happy with that story. But part of me wanted to find out more.
I was one of a handful of people who knew where Tony was buried. I felt I owed it to him to tell a piece of his story — without realising how tangled and challenging that story would become.
But first, here are the facts about Tony: he was born on 20 January 1969. He was brought up in Rochdale. He liked Northern Soul and went clubbing in Wigan, presumably at the legendary Wigan Casino.
He worked in kitchens. On paper, this list amounts to almost nothing of interest. But for me, these details were precious, because there was scant information about Tony that I could find. He seems to have had no online presence and I couldn’t find a birth certificate. Apart from Hayley’s Facebook posts and a next of kin plea from Greater Manchester Police, nobody had posted about him.
From Dan I knew a basic timeline of his death. On May 24, he was discovered lying on his sofa — in the spot where he used to play video games. It had been a week since Tony had spoken to Dan, so he and a colleague went over for a welfare check. They knocked on the door. Nothing. They went in. It was dark inside his flat, because the blinds were drawn.
“Tony?” Dan shouted. “You alright?”
They didn’t go far inside, but his colleague went in enough to see the solid shadow of his body on the sofa.
“Could you tell he was dead?” I asked Dan. “It was…obvious,” he replied.
It’s estimated that Tony had been dead for about five days. Dan recalls a faint odour.
In Japan they call it kodokushi: a lonely death. The phenomenon was first described in the 1980s, and has become a prevalent issue in Japan, particularly because of the country's high elderly population and its “single-minded focus on economic growth” which “frayed families and communities,” notes a New York Times story. A moving 2015 article in the same newspaper, about the lonely death of a man called George Bell, brought attention to the many New Yorkers who die “alone and unseen”. In 2006, a 38-year-old woman called Joyce Carol Vincent was discovered in her bedsit in London — she had been dead for three years, and no-one had noticed.
The statistics for lonely deaths in Greater Manchester are unknown. A friendly coroner’s officer says they don’t have the figures. Manchester City Council keeps a record of “welfare burials”, another term for public health funerals. In 2021-22 there were 23 such burials in the city, and so far this year there have been 10.
Tony became a service user with Dan’s organisation in 2008. Before that he lived in Rochdale, presumably with his family, up until 1989, when he was about 20. There is a gap as to where he was living between 1990 and 2008, although one online phone book entry suggests he might have been in Manchester.
Patient confidentiality continues after a person’s death, so Dan has been unable to tell me about Tony’s precise diagnosis. But I've been able to pick up some details about his life, albeit only how he lived in recent years. As a symptom of his illness, he used to have episodes, such as when he would think there were people inside his flat when there weren’t. He smoked heavily. His weight fluctuated. He ate frozen food, ready meals, takeaways, stuff that could be cooked and eaten easily.
Tony ventured out occasionally to get his medication or shopping. It seems possible that the lifestyle he lived as a result of his mental health struggles contributed to his death. As a result of higher rates of smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise (as well as increased incidence of suicide), people with severe mental illnesses “have a reduced life expectancy compared to the general population of up to 10–25 years”, according to a recent study published in the Annals of General Psychiatry.
Tony didn’t talk about his family, but he did mention that he had loved and had been loved: he had a partner called Phil, who apparently died in 2010.
I tried to trace Tony’s family. I messaged people with the surname Doran in Rochdale. I combed through newspaper archives. I posted in Facebook groups. I searched Ancestry.com in the hope of finding a family tree. Everything drew a blank. I contacted Manchester’s coroner’s office again to see if I could view Tony’s belongings and maybe photographs. An email dashed my hopes. “When Mr Doran was brought into coronial care, he had no property, other than the clothes he was wearing.”
He was due to have a cardiologist appointment because he had complained about problems with his chest — he mentioned this to Dan the week before he died. An email from the coroner’s officer told me that the provisional cause of death is bronchopneumonia, although the final post-mortem report hasn’t been published.
Bronchopneumonia is a type of pneumonia that inflames the lungs. It can develop over a long period of time, or it can occur quickly. A person can have it with no symptoms at all, or if they do have symptoms, they might confuse them with a cold: fever, a cough, shaking chills. It causes airways to constrict. In extreme cases, someone can develop sepsis alongside bronchopneumonia, or go into septic shock.
When I learned this, I hoped that one evening, Tony felt tired and decided to go to sleep. That when his breathing stopped, it was painless.
‘A nice kind man from Rochdale’
A few weeks after the funeral, I was at my desk at work, searching for details about Tony, when I clicked on a news article about a violent attack in Burnley. A Sikh shopkeeper had been confronted by a man with a kitchen knife in 2013. The man, who was convicted of attempted murder, was called Anthony Doran.
The headline read: “Fighting for his life: Shopkeeper who battled with knife-wielding racist who tried to stab him as horrified customers looked on”. The story said Doran was living on Kime Street in Burnley, and had four previous convictions including a caution in 2002 for causing grievous bodily harm. It said that he had paranoid schizophrenia.
I had never seen a photograph of Tony, but details in the article matched the things I knew about him. I scrolled down and saw a photo. The man in the CCTV footage was bald, wearing a blue T-shirt and dark tracksuit bottoms. He was 45 in 2014, the year he appeared at Preston Crown Court, which meant that in 2022 he would have been 53. Which was Tony’s age when he died.
At the funeral, a thought had crossed my mind about whether the man whose death we were marking had done something terrible in his life. He seemed to have become estranged from his family and it was natural to wonder why. But the thought passed quickly and only came back when I read about the attack on Bhag Singh.
On a rainy day last month, I took the train from Manchester Victoria to Burnley. I wandered through the rows of stone terraced houses until I came to Kime Street. Anthony Doran had lived at number 16, a narrow white-washed house with slatted blinds. From there, it took me five minutes to walk to the shop.
I tried to imagine what he was thinking; whether he was angry or scared or confused. I have my own experiences of mental illness and understood, in a small way, how your mind can break — like when a voice told me to die; or when one day I woke up and thought my mirror's reflection was another person.
I found the shop. The layout was still the same. Singh still owned it, but the assistant told me he came and went as he pleased. I waited outside the shop for hours but there was no sign of him. I left my phone number at the till, but Singh didn’t call.
During his funeral, Hayley had called Tony “a nice kind man from Rochdale”. Dan remembered him as “very pleasant” and someone who “never caused any problems". But ever since reading the news articles about the Burnley attack, I had become convinced that Tony did do something terrible —something that traumatised another man and could have taken his life. Was Tony a racist? Or were his bigoted words to Singh in the shop, about going back to his own country, a product of a deeply unwell mind?
For weeks, my head was full of quandaries; moral uncertainties. The articles about the Burnley attack shocked me. And my own identity surely played a part in how I responded. As a brown woman who has experienced racist remarks in my life, I had a particular empathy for Singh and how terrified he must have felt. How degraded as well.
“Did Tony Doran deserve to die alone?” I wrote in one draft of this story.
Then I had a moment that seemed to clarify quite clearly how I felt about that question. Just as I was finishing this story I got a text from Dan, answering a query I had about the grave. He wrote: "Tony was on benefits, so I don't think he will get a headstone, Dani."
“That’s so sad,” I typed back. And then — not really thinking about it — I found myself saying to my editor next to me:
“Perhaps we could crowdfund to get him one?”
‘Has Dan confirmed it’s Tony?’
And now I have to admit how close I came to a major journalistic blunder. It’s a mistake that would have sullied Tony Doran’s memory, precisely the opposite of what I have been trying to achieve.
Just over a week ago, on Friday afternoon, when I was doing the final "fact checks" on this story and contacting people to go over the last details for the fifteenth time, my editor asked me a question. “Has Dan confirmed it's Tony?” He was asking just to be doubly sure. He assumed I had done this weeks ago, which of course I should have.
He was talking about the CCTV stills from the Burnley attack which were included in the news reports.The thought hadn’t occurred to me. In one of my conversations with Dan, I had mentioned the crime and had taken his answer as confirmation that he knew about the incident with Bhag Singh. Recently I listened back to tape of that interview and he doesn’t confirm it: he says something unspecific about how careful support workers like him need to be about disclosing people’s histories.
My mind, fresh from the shock of reading the articles and desperate to fill in the blanks about a man who had remained so elusive to me, had made that leap. Stupidly, I had never asked Dan directly, or showed him the pictures.
As always when you’ve made a mistake like this, it’s easy to see the ways I should have checked and realised ages ago. Looking back, there were a few details that didn’t make sense: the Anthony Doran who attacked Singh lived at his Kime Street address from 2011 to 2013, whereas Tony was living in Levenshulme from 2008 until the day of his death. And if the man in Burnley had been sent to a secure mental health facility “indefinitely”, as the article reported, how did he end up in Manchester eight years later? It seems that in a strange twist, two men called Anthony Doran were living in this part of the country — both the same age, both suffering from mental health struggles.
In the office, I took a screenshot of the photo in one of the Burnley articles and sent it to Dan over WhatsApp.
“Is this our Tony?” I texted, even though I was confident of the answer.
“That doesn’t look like him to me,” he replied. “That’s not Tony.” I sent him a link that contained a photo gallery of the CCTV stills, and asked him if he was sure. He said he would check with two of his colleagues, who had both known Tony. The next day he texted back. It wasn’t him.
This story was supposed to go out last Saturday, but we held it after Dan’s text and I went to the pub after work in a daze. I wondered if I should publish it at all, given that I’ve spent at least the past month on the wrong trail; thinking and worrying about the wrong man.
But this week I went back to working on it. Why? I suppose because I’ve always hoped that by writing about my hunt for Tony, someone who knew him might read it and come to lay a flower on his grave, or just stand there and mark his passing.
There’s also another reason. I think the journey I’ve been on to find out who he is — including the misidentification with an entirely different person — has taught me something about how we evaluate what people are worth. It’s made me reckon with conflicting thoughts about racism, mental health illnesses and forgiveness. My search had begun with questions and it ended with questions. Lots of them: about a man's character and how we should mark the death of someone like Tony Doran.
When I think of Tony, and why his funeral affected me so deeply, I realise that his story played on a human fear: that we may be forgotten; that we may disappear without a trace. He had slipped from the world unseen, his death only noticed because of a stipulation in his housing contract dictating that support workers can gain access to the flats if a resident hasn’t had weekly contact.
“We could all go down this path,” Hayley had told me. But anecdotally, it seems that people who have lived on the fringes of society, or who have come to this country from thousands of miles away, are much more likely to end their earthly innings alone, or perhaps surrounded by people who never knew them, lowered into an unmarked grave. What do those lonely deaths say about the people who have died and the paths their lives took? Perhaps more importantly, what do they say about us?
This week, I thought back to the funeral. Tony was laid to rest on a blissful day, 9 August 2022. After the funeral, there was nothing else we could do for him. Everybody said their goodbyes. Then Hayley and I got into Gill’s car. As we crawled out of the cemetery through the tall headstones, I saw a family crowded around a grave.
There were two small boys: one was enthusiastically kicking the weeds away. Another tipped a watering can over a potted plant. I thought of the silent grave we had just left behind. I thought of the note Noreen wrote from all of us, and of the redemptive kindness of strangers...we love you.
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