Dying alone. It's a fear that gnaws at the back of human brains, and a fear that was given new life in the isolating and alienating conditions of a global pandemic.

To the American Victorians, a good life was only properly concluded with a "good death" -- that is, one surrounded by family and at peace with God. However, as technology advanced and lifestyles changed, people began to live more independently. This is especially true for single elderly folks, people whose age or health may render them vulnerable and alone in the modern world.

This fear rendered real for many has become so prevalent that a new, related term was coined in Japanese: kodokushi, or "lonely death," the phenomenon of people dying alone and not being found for extended periods of time. One theory for the rise of kodokushi is that those who experience it withdrew from a stressful and apathetic world; a world that ignored and excluded them.

Mary Cerruti of Houston, Texas was one of those people. Cerruti's parents passed early in her life; she was an only child, and both of her marriages had failed. Her neighbors in her Houston Heights neighborhood cared about her, but when Cerruti went missing in 2015, there was little they could do to advocate for her.

For two years, no one knew what had happened to Mary Cerruti. They only knew that she had been a hold-out against property development near her historical home and could only wonder: what had happened to all her cats?

Without Cerruti to pay the mortgage, her home was eventually foreclosed. The new owners found the corpses of six of her eight known cats. Eventually, they also found Cerruti. Her earthly remains, skeletonized and gnawed by rats, were found between the walls of her home.

Get our free mobile app

How could such a thing happen? No one will ever know exactly for sure, but investigators concluded that the reclusive and very tiny woman fell from the attic and got stuck in the walls. Living alone, no one would have heard her, or known she had gone into the attic. Had the new owners not discovered a broken board in the attic, Mary Cerruti may have remained in the walls as long as the home stood.

Leading Theories About D.B. Cooper and 30 other unsolved mysteries

Thanks to the American fascination with confounding unsolved cases, mystery is among the most popular genres of books, movies, and television. From heists and capers to murders and robberies, the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries spark media frenzies that grab headlines around the globe. Some cases compel so much public intrigue that the facts and theories surrounding them become the basis of books, movies, plays, and documentaries decades or even centuries after the cases go cold.

Explore More Texas Lore

7 Urban Legends from East Texas