On the afternoon of Aug. 22, 2015, Dale Tisserand and Melani Rodrigue opened the front door to a small white house in Corning, Calif., a town of 7,500 about 115 miles north of Sacramento. The women, who’d been given the keys by local police, are investigators for the office of the Tehama County Public Administrator. They knew the owner had died in the house the previous week and that his name was Eugene Brown.
The neighborhood mail carrier was the one who’d called the police. Every day, Brown would wait for her in a chair by his door, and the two would exchange pleasantries. But for the past five days, there’d been no sign of him. Police did a welfare check and discovered his body in a pool of dried blood by the toilet. Members of the coroner’s office who were dispatched to the house determined that he died of a stroke, but not before breaking his nose in a nasty fall. They did a quick search for a will and contact information for family members and friends—return addresses on envelopes, phone numbers jotted on scraps of paper. Not finding anything, they called Tisserand and Rodrigue.
Many counties in the U.S. have public administrators, though a lot of people don’t know they exist. They operate within the murky ecosystem of public agencies and private businesses that kick into gear when someone dies: locksmiths, biohazard and trauma cleanup services, trash haulers, auctioneers, real estate agents, courts, attorneys, and banks. Tisserand and Rodrigue were in Brown’s house to locate his will and heirs, which can be difficult when people die alone. They would also oversee his estate. Even a simple death, something peaceful in your sleep, requires the assistance of an awful lot of people.