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Death Next Door

A story from the Scottish city of Aberdeen has raised some interesting questions about attitudes towards the funeral business. The Cults Hotel used to have a post office next door. Now the post office is closed and a funeral parlour might be opening on the empty site. The owner of the hotel isn’t very happy at the prospect: he doesn’t want his guests to see coffins “coming and going” all day.

It’s an understandable reaction, at least in British culture. The hotel hosts weddings, birthday parties and other celebrations. Those are times for feeling happy, forgetting your worries and feeling optimistic about the future. They’re about light, laughter and life. A coffin represents the exact opposite: darkness, grief and death. The sight of a coffin is what used to be called a memento mori – something that reminds us of the certainty that one day all of us will have to pass away.

But we don’t want to be reminded of that at a wedding or birthday party. If the hotel could object officially to the funeral parlour, it would, but there are no special planning requirements: it’s a business and has the same right to occupy the site as the post office did. You can see the logic of that. Funeral businesses offer an essential service, whatever people feel at times when they don’t require that service. If it were easy to object to the opening of a funeral business and force it to move elsewhere, that would be happening all the time.

So should we take a more open attitude towards death and dead bodies in Britain? As it is, we prefer to keep that part of reality out of sight and out of mind. Or we do something very British: we make a joke about our embarrassment. In one episode of the comedy series Fawlty Towers, Basil and his staff have to deal with a guest who dies overnight. They don’t want the other guests to know and the comedy comes from their frantic efforts to smuggle the corpse out of the hotel without it being seen. They want to keep it out of sight and out of mind.

Is that a healthy attitude? We all have to die some time and even a small hotel will have thousands of guests over the years. It’s certain that sooner or later a guest will die on the premises, so why should people be upset to see a corpse being carried out of a hotel room? But that’s logic and logic isn’t always much help in dealing with our emotions. We have instincts about dead bodies: they’re disturbing things and we feel the urge to our distance if we can. A place with a dead body in it might be dangerous. The dead person might have been killed by a predator or might have died of an infectious disease.

The dead body itself will certainly become dangerous as it begins to rot. In a hot climate that can happen very quickly, which is why you can find a strict rule in the Old Testament of the Bible: “He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days.” You can see some of that ancient taboo in the reaction of the hotel in Aberdeen to the prospect of a funeral parlour opening next door.