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EMF Studies

17 January 2013

News from Geneva: Dead in a Studio and Forgotten for 28 Months

Michel Christen enjoying his family
A social crime ? Yesterday evening, RTS1 (Radio télévision suisse romande) showed a documentary revealing new details about the death of Michel Christen. On 12 May 2005, this 53-year-old man, reduce to a skeleton, was discovered 28 months after his death, in his studio in the center of the city of Geneva. His ex-wife and daughter live in the same city. “The forgotten dead” are not so rare. The Press Officer of the Vaudois cantonal police, Jean-Christophe Sauterel, says, “We discover one a month on average persons in their homes several days or several weeks after their death”. It is not possible to find the original article by Thierry Mertenat, reporting on this tragic incident, which appeared in the Tribune de Genève on 6 June 2005. The documentary in French is available for viewing on the RTS1 site until 23 January 2013. 

This is perhaps an indication of the passivity of Geneva : its inhabitants, its social services … This is one major reason why advocates can barely make a dent in awareness regarding vital issues concerning society, health, and the environment. Nor does one advocacy group join forces with another to enhance power. In the case of Mr. Christen, administrative services were slow to react and did not co-ordinate with one another. Although he had been treated at the cantonal hospital (HUG) for a serious illness, no one ever enquired when he failed to show for a follow-up appointment. The post piled up in his mailbox, social services continued to pay his allowances, then cut them off, enquiries were made to neighbors, the bad smell coming from the flat in the days following his death was attributed to a dead rat. His café “friends” never considered he might have died … people said he was in hospital, away. And where were his ex-wife and daughter who also lived in the same city? People commented that Mr. Christen “wanted to erase his life”. I don’t think so. Such a desire is also a call for help. A lady committed suicide in the flat next to mine in Geneva. A social service worker discovered her body, perhaps a day or two later. We live in a very cold society in the city of Geneva. We are all guilty of allowing this tragic incident to happen.

Dead in a studio and forgotten for 28 months
by Jean-Claude Péclet, Le Matin Dimanche, 22 April 2012 (translated from French)

A documentary reveals new details about the scandal which moved people in 2005.

When the Tribune de Genève unveiled it seven years ago, the news seemed quite sad. On 12 May 2005, a man, reduced to the state of a skeleton, was discovered in his studio in Acacias. According to the law, the authorities noted the date of the removal of the body as that of his demise, but the death went back 18 months, they then thought.

It was worse than that. Michel Christen did not die at age 56, as noted in the register, but at 53, 28 months earlier. Two years and half during which his family, his neighbors and social services tracking him were not overly concerned about what had become of him. “Chronicle of a forgotten death”, an investigative film by Pierre Morath, reconstructs each phase of this unthinkable incident. Without feeling, the producer exhibits the curiosity which had so much been lacking around the end of the life of Michel Christen. The latter, drinking to excess and ill, may have been wanted “to be forgotten”, as a neighbor said, but he was not an outsider. A chimney-sweep, he settled in Geneva and married. His ex-wife, referring to his marriage proposal, kneeling on the Mont Blanc bridge, describes him as “excessive in everything”, but jovial, sociable. The first years of married life were happy. A daughter was born.

An accident occurring while he was serving as a volunteer fireman, triggered a downward spiral: a long period of immobilization, alcoholism, debts, violence, divorce. Michel Christen “let himself go”, as they say. He was diagnosed with cancer. But, even broken, he was not solitary. He went often to the Caré, a meeting place for life’s down-and-out persons, and sought out his buddies at the café. He was known in the neighborhood.

Then one day, nothing. No one was worried. « He’s in hospital ». « He’s abroad, » his acquaintances were led to believe who sometimes asked about him. A bad smell pervaded the floor of the apartment where social services paid the rent for his studio. “A dead rat in the ventilation”, thought one neighbor; the rental agency tried to verify this, in vain. The TV set of Michel Christen remained on for weeks; no one noticed it. The building superintendent “was also not very well” during this time

« Long and difficult »

The post box overflowing ? The postal service returned the mail noting that « onward transmission is impossible ». Michel Christen did not appear at his scheduled medical appointment? “The rule is not to chase after patients”, said the hospital. Bills returned, while the allocation for invalidity and two others remained untouched in his bank account? Respect for one’s private life is sacred …

The administrative machine finally began to turn, but oh how slowly. Reminders of procedures and inquiries made to neighbors, the service responsible for allocations (ex-OCPA) took 14 months before concluding that it was a departure and cut off the allocations. “The very least intrusive attitude”, commented Jean-Daniel Delley ironically, engaged as an expert for the City of Geneva to write a report on this affair, which the film uncovers. Once the OCPA had rendered its verdict concerning Michel Christen – without having seen him – the rental agency of his apartment building restarted inquiry procedures.

Producing this film has been « long and difficult », says Pierre Morath. Without a letter from the Government of Geneva, administration would have closed its doors. The rental agency refused to say anything. He had to convince the relatives to speak. Michel Christen’s daughter did so, courageously.

Yes, this sputtering, smelly father shamed her whenever and wherever he went. But he remained “her Daddy”, she said to him during their last meeting. He seemed to have been touched by this. Without the compartmentalization, without the administrative indifference of the official services, the body of Michel Christen would have without doubt been discovered earlier. “But the true scandal, isn’t it to die alone?” asks the protagonist of the film.

© Le Matin Dimanche 

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