On a cold October day in Chanhassen, Minneapolis, a few desiccated leaves shiver on branches, their former comrades evicted and scattered by the elements. The only thing in sight that is solid enough to withstand the relentless wind is Paisley Park, the late Prince Roger Nelson’s home, recording studio, and the scene of his untimely death.
The facade of the largely windowless monolith is hospital-grade white, with a network of vaults and pyramids that recall an ancient funeral complex. The interior of Paisley Park feels unnaturally cleansed of life: the scuff marks on the top of Purple Rain’s piano are among the only visible signs of a vanished human presence. But Paisley Park was just as bleak and empty, they say, when Prince was still alive. A week or so before he died in 2016, the singer was spotted riding a bike around his property, alone, aimless, childlike. He was last seen looking “frail and nervous” outside a Walgreens, before expiring of a fentanyl overdose in an elevator in his palace. His body was discovered 13 hours later by his staff, the people who were paid to be around him.
Rolling Stone writer and Minneapolis native Neal Karlen formed a decades-long correspondence with Prince. The singer would call him in the dark hours, Karlen wrote, to “talk about loneliness and death.” It was painful for Karlen to imagine what his friend might have been thinking and feeling in his last moments of life. “I just pray Prince wasn’t cognizant, even for a mite of a moment,” Karlen wrote, “that he was dying alone in a nondescript elevator.”
There is universality in the existential terror of a lonely death: it is a fate that strikes rich and poor alike. Divorce, technology, and erosion of communities have left people feeling increasingly alienated. The curse of isolation is raging across the wealthy world, but nowhere is it felt more keenly than in the United States, the world’s great capitalist project. Prince, a man who redefined music during his life, had the most commonplace of 21st-century deaths. Increasingly, Americans of all classes are living lonely, and dying alone.
“Loneliness is personal, and it is also political,” writes British author Olivia Laing in her 2016 book, Lonely City. “Like depression, like melancholy or restlessness, it is subject to pathologization, to being considered a disease.” As she discovered over the course of writing her book, loneliness does not simply strike solitary figures: it strikes people who are married, who are successful, who have friends. The key element is the absence of a human connection, a true feeling of intimacy with others. And although, according to Laing, it’s often been said that “loneliness serves no purpose,” she believes that it has received insufficient attention: “I don’t think any experience so much a part of our common shared lives can be entirely devoid of meaning.”
Since Prince released Purple Rain in the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they are lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. Behind the numbers lies a heartbreaking fact: feeling isolated is self-perpetuating. The longer a person goes without experiencing a meaningful human connection, the more they lose their ability to sense social cues. Chronically lonely people tend to retreat from reality, as the agony of feeling unloved and unlovable causes their range of emotions to narrow and darken. They find themselves becoming paranoid, and instinctively fleeing contact with others. Their view of the world becomes increasingly hostile.
Before I arrived at Paisley Park, I had spent a year traveling misery’s poorly-lit backstreets, seeking to understand America’s epidemic of loneliness. I came to realize how loneliness and death are inextricably connected. The sad paradox is that, although the people who suffer from loneliness are increasingly numerous, there is, by definition, no community and no camaraderie among them.
Drifting through sad, seemingly identical towns in Ohio and Kentucky, I reached the opioid capital of America: Huntington, West Virginia, where one in four are addicted to pharmaceutical drugs like fentanyl, or to heroin. On the hill overlooking the town cemetery, almost every house had raised a white flag: a for-sale sign in some form of decay. Most people with money had long since departed. The population on this side of the tracks lived in public housing or squatted in vacant properties. The day I arrived, the sunshine had finally overcome days of grey sleet, but there was barely a person to be seen. Doors were shut, shutters drawn. The people of Huntington kept their pain and despair indoors.
One person I encountered was a woman named Lezlie, who had grown up in McDowell County, south of Huntington, a place so desolate that even Walmart packed up and left. Like almost everyone in West Virginia, Lezlie’s family had worked in the mines, and had been repeatedly fucked over by all forms of power. She was introduced to Oxy by her mom at 10. After years of addiction and jail and rehab, Lezlie defined a purpose for herself: to transition somehow from isolation to solitude, the state of being alone without being lonely. Today, Lezlie was burying a friend in the cemetery, one who had been a particular inspiration to her in getting clean.
“Drugs are no respecter of person, and death certainly isn’t either,” said Fred Kitchen, a local funeral director and president of West Virginia’s Funeral Directors’ Association. The city, which runs the cemetery, said it hasn’t seen any increase in burials, but the members of the Funeral Directors’ Association see the death certificates, according to Kitchen, and know that there has been a massive increase in people dying of overdoses. “The Indigent Burial Fund has ran out of money four months early, which is placing a huge burden on everyone,” he said. “We get 2.2 million dollars a year, and the last two or three years, we keep running out early.”
Americans are drinking themselves to death at record rates, with around 90,000 people dying each year from drink-related diseases, in addition to crashes, accidents, and homicides under the influence. Yet the neighborhood bar, which once promised at least a temporary fix for sadness, is disappearing. Around 10,000 local haunts have closed over the last decade, predominantly in Midwest and Appalachian towns like Huntington. In 2014, they were closing at the rate of six each day. At the same time, opioid and heroin deaths are rising year by year, to around 50,000 in 2016, more than car crashes or gun violence. The most common age group of those dying is 45 to 54.
But opioids are not the sole killers of the lonely and the poor: people die too for want of medical treatments they cannot afford. In Tifton, a small Georgia town cleaved by race, I met Sherry Smith in her tiny, dark apartment, long past the point where paved roads had given way to dirt. Two weeks earlier, she had been sharing this space with her brother, George Tabor. He was hospitalized with pneumonia and a time bomb in his 34-year-old heart. When it came time for his surgery, his employer, Applebee’s, said he was three months shy of the two-year employment period for him to qualify for healthcare.
Two days after George emerged from his coma, the hospital discharged him. He died a day later, home alone while Sherry was working under the pressure of unpaid bills. “Are we really in the land of the free if you get sick and they won’t take care of you?” she asked through a deluge of tears. “Are you going to heal yourself?”
Finding myself unable to meet her eyes, my attention was drawn to many surfaces hosting empty photo frames. The only thing she had left of George—family photographs—had been taken to the funeral parlour she couldn’t afford. She feared they would be held as collateral for payment of his headstone. Meanwhile, the medical bills Sherry didn’t know she wasn’t obligated to pay kept arriving, itemized.
Poor, dispersed, and with fragile relationships with relatives, George’s family, like tens of thousands of others, turned to crowdfunding his funeral. Seeking online funding for your relative’s funeral is like playing the lottery: there’s a chance your fundraiser could go viral, that a community of supporters could form around your family in their darkest time. The energy that, collectively harnessed, could be used to agitate for a better social contract, is instead fragmented across thousands of individual, desperate pleas. Many people never find the winning ticket. Alongside rising funeral costs, there has also been a corresponding increase in the number of unclaimed bodies. “Up in Atlanta, they get them out of the morgue and give them a pauper’s grave, about ten or fifteen people a month,” said Larry Taylor, who conducted George Tabor’s funeral. “The county will pay funeral directors $1,100 a body, and on Saturday they’ll do a mass grave.”
In the end, George’s family’s appeal yielded $80, but it cost $200 alone to pay the county for the plot, and another thousand to give him a headstone. I walked the dusty road back to central Tifton past the cemetery, where George’s naked plot sat on an awkward slope near an intersection of road. A creased corflute sign was pitched into the grass in front of it: Affordable HEALTHCARE. Call Today!
Basic human dignity is increasingly out of reach for most working-class people. Welfare has become a slur, just as sadness has become a pathology: these things are treated as identifying labels for weak and troubled individuals, rather than as alarming signs of a society increasingly indifferent to suffering. The kind of union that would have demanded that George’s employer provide him with health coverage was busted long before George was even born.
Meanwhile, poor women seeking abortions in areas of the country where safe medical procedures are prohibitively expensive, or hopelessly far away, find themselves turning to the internet in search of both emotional support and medical advice. For so many of us, the rise of technology has been a major exacerbator of loneliness: between 2010 and 2015, teens in the United States who presented with classic symptoms of depression—feeling “useless and joyless“—rose 33 percent, while suicides from 13 to 18 year olds increased by 31 percent. “All of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives,” writes Professor Jean Twenge, “the sudden ascendance of the smartphone.” She noted that teenagers who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day online to have at least one suicide risk factor.
But for some people in situations of profound isolation—like women contemplating self-abortions—the internet may be the only slender tether they have to some form of human compassion. We do not know the full extent of self-abortion, but internet searches for how to go about it have spiked over 40 percent since 2011. It is estimated that up to 200,000 women in Texas alone have tried to conduct their own termination.
Online communities and tightly-guarded secret forums for women seeking to end their pregnancies are proliferating. It’s preferable to the days of coat hangers in the bathtub, but it by no means alleviates the ordeal of going it alone. I spoke to a number of women across the South and Midwest who had self-aborted, driven to this intimate trauma by zealous laws that caused them to feel deeply alienated within their own communities.
Missouri’s abortion legislation meant that the procedure, travel, and accommodation would have cost Alana a month’s salary. Struggling financially and unable to take time off from her job, she ordered the drugs online and used her weekend to conduct a major medical procedure herself. “All I had was my pug. She stayed right by my side the whole time and snuggled with me harder when I cried.” She replayed the horror stories she had forced herself to read about. “The biggest risk is that you won’t expel everything and die of sepsis, or that you’ll bleed out.”
Lee, from Corpus Christi, Texas, spends much of her time roaming online forums, trying to find people to talk to about the experience of self-abortion, something she could not even share with her girlfriends. “The loneliness of knowing that people you love may disown you for what you’ve done was the hardest part for me,” she said. Suffering from severe depression and anxiety from her experiences, and unable to get treatment for them, she had resorted to self-medicating.
Violence is lining your enemies up against a wall; power is the calculated withdrawal and denial of services. Holistic alleviation of medical and mental afflictions is placed deliberately out of reach of poor and working class people, where only the fittest—a handful of outliers blessed by chance—have any hope of reaching them. For everyone else, life becomes about finding ways to shut off pain receptors in the brain. Somewhere higher up, other individuals are raking in the obscene profits of their misery.
Our need to belong is hardwired, yet sociologists say that the kinless are becoming a critical demographic trend in society. If life was already solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, it has become even more so. In the 1980s, the Japanese began using the word kodokushi, lonely death, to describe the phenomenon of people who died alone and weren’t discovered for long periods of time. Kodokushi tripled as Japan’s economic woes set in, with the elderly, unemployed, and welfare recipients increasingly left to rot forgotten. In the U.S., death by loneliness has increasingly taken the form of “despair deaths”—booze, drugs, obesity, poverty, isolation, and suicide—which have risen dramatically in recent years. Rising inequality does not completely account for this trend, but there is a significant overlap. Despair deaths have contributed to the decrease in America’s life expectancy for the first time in decades. “Both social isolation and loneliness are associated with increased mortality,” one research study noted, with the authors theorising that it may be the “emotional pathway through which social isolation impairs health.”
As a way of staving off fear of the end of life, American culture has developed a perverse theology of death, parlaying the idea that unbearable amounts of pain in this life will be rewarded with opulence in the next. Jessica Mitford, British aristocrat turned American communist, examined this culture of excess in her 1963 expose of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. A new mythology had been built up, she said, “to justify the peculiar customs surrounding the disposal of our dead.” The funerary industry was a racket, profiteering from the fog of grief, “a huge, macabre, and expensive practical joke on the American public.”
Over the decades, funerals have become the third largest expenditure in life, after a house and car. Beginning in the years of post-World War II optimism, Americans developed a taste for mausoleums. “They came out of notions of the modern dream, and represented the way that we hoped the world was going to be in Eisenhower’s America,” Chicago photographer John Faier told me, after a decade traveling the country to document mausoleums for his exhibition Queen of Heaven. “These spaces are very antiseptic, even though they’re embellished with matching lamps and carpets and wall carvings,” he said. “They exist because it was seen as the American way.”
Mausoleums are a reflection of the culture in which they were built: monuments to ambition, celebrations of grandeur. In America’s case, they represent the acceptance of trickle-down greed as the highest good in life. Traveling to crypts around the country for over a decade, one thing has struck Faier above else: the only signs of life he has ever encountered in these spaces are fruit flies. “I’ve never, never seen a mourner in my ten years—not even a representation that anyone has been there. The people buried in these spaces are forgotten.”
Blinkered by our universal dread of a lonely end, we are ignoring this metastasizing culture of death because the only alternative is a radical overhaul of everything in American life. Just as Paisley Park, Prince’s grand project, unwittingly became his mausoleum, the country is slowly entombing itself in despair. Wealth and success offered Prince no immunity to the American nightmare; as the consummate outsider, as someone who refused to conform, he was never a testament to its dream. “His biggest and perhaps only fear,” Neal Karlen wrote after Prince’s passing, “was dying alone.”
This article originally appeared in our Jan/Feb 2018 print edition.
If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation or purchasing a subscription. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.