We love our gadgets, don’t we? Laptop and tablet computers that go anywhere, smartphones that let us tote around the entire Internet in our pocket or handbag, abundant wi-fi available every place we go. It’s liberating to be so virtually connected to absolutely everything that’s important.
The trouble is, these gadgets don’t connect us to everything that’s important. For some, they actually separate us from other people in critical ways we may not fully grasp until it’s too late. A woman from suburban Detroit recently became the tragic poster child for the proposition that we can indeed be too connected to our automated, online lives for our own good.
The Grim and Cautionary Tale of Pia Farrenkopf
Pia Farrenkopf, 45, lived alone in Pontiac, Mich. Early in March 2014 she was found sitting in the back seat of her Jeep Liberty inside her garage with her winter coat on and the ignition in the off position. She was dead.
In fact, she’d been sitting there — dead, undiscovered and mummified – for almost six years. Yes, you read that correctly.
How can this possibly happen? It’s not as difficult as you might imagine.
Farrenkopf had no husband and no kids. She was estranged from her family. She traveled frequently for her job with a Chrysler financing firm. So frequently, in fact, that neighbors saw her only sporadically. Not seeing her around the neighborhood was the norm. Even when she was at home, she was not gregarious.
“She kept to herself. I figured she traveled a lot, because she wouldn’t be home for months, then I’d see her off and on,” an unnamed neighbor told the Macomb Daily. ”When I didn’t see her for a while when the economy went bad, I thought she left … someone said she moved to California.”
In mid-2008, Farrenkopf apparently resigned from her job, according to a Facebook page reportedly set up by a relative. The last time anyone is sure she was seen alive is when she was pulled over in late 2008 by the police for having no proof of insurance and expired plates on her Jeep. She did not appear at a court hearing for this infraction in January 2009.
Though some thought Farrenkopf may have died by the end of 2008, information came to light indicating that she reportedly withdrew money from her bank via a non-automated transaction in March 2009. Oddly, there also appears to be evidence she may have voted in 2010, though election officials say that might be an administrative error.
Auto-Payments and Neatnik Neighbors Kept Pia “Alive“ for Years
The reason Pia Farrenkopf’s death went undiscovered for so long is, in part, because all her important bills were set up online to be automatically paid. From the day she died, her mortgage, utilities and other bills were taken care of like clockwork out of her bank account.
Her home remained presentable because, unasked, a neighbor began mowing Farrenkopf’s lawn. He apparently did so believing she was always out of town and wanted to avoid living next to someone with an unkempt lawn.
No mail piled up at the house because Farrenkopf had arranged for it to be held at the post office, due to her frequent travels. To the outside world, nothing at the house appeared to be amiss.
Eventually the bills ate through the $54,000 in Farrenkopf’s bank account. Even after payments stopped, however, no one came to the home to find out what was going on. Creditors, the state and the IRS were able to file tax liens and obtain civil judgments against her for nonpayment. Of course Farrenkopf never showed up or responded to any of those legal actions.
Eventually the house went into foreclosure. A contractor sent by the bank to repair a hole in the roof during the first week of March 2014 found Farrenkopf’s mummified remains in the back seat of her Jeep. Authorities are unsure how she died. Watch a news report about this story here:
Can We Be Too Electronically-Connected For Our Own Good?
Pia Farrenkopf seems to have lived a particularly solitary life. It’s incredibly sad to imagine her body sitting there for years while her bills were auto-paid, fastidious neighbors mowed her lawn, and life moved along without her. Farrenkopf’s contact with people was so limited, no one – no one at all – thought to go to her front door and insist on finding out why they hadn’t heard from her.
All of the interactions between Farrenkopf and her creditors took place electronically or by mail. No one reached out person-to-person to find out what was going on with her. Her near-constant absence while alive led her neighbors to assume she was once again traveling.
Pia Farrenkopf was so successful at automating her life and keeping friendly ties to a minimum that it occurred to no one to ask if something was wrong. More than likely she didn’t do this intentionally, which makes this situation all the more heartbreaking.
The lesson here is abundantly clear. Reach out. Talk to people. Get to know your neighbors and co-workers, particularly if you have no family ties. Establish relationships with those around you so you (and they) will realize when something unusual is going on. Don’t insulate yourself from the world with a life lived only online or alone. The consequences can be tragic.
Photo Credit: Mummified in Michigan Facebook page