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Map showing places where it is illegal to die, where it used to be illegal to die, and where there are attempts to make it illegal to die.

Prohibition of death is a political social phenomenon and taboo in which a law is passed stating that it is illegal to die, usually specifically in a certain political division or in a specific building.

The earliest case of prohibition of death occurred in the 5th century BC, in the Greek island of Delos; dying on Delos was prohibited on religious grounds.

Today, in most cases, the phenomenon has occurred as a satirical protest to the posture of the governments of not approving the expansion of municipal cemeteries with no more space for additional corpses. In Spain one town has prohibited death,[1] in France there have been several settlements which have had death prohibited,[2][3][4][5] whilst in a town—Biritiba Mirim—in Brazil, an attempt to prohibit is currently taking place.[6][7][8]

Additionally, there is a traditional prohibition on recording deaths in royal palaces in the United Kingdom, for rather different reasons.[9][10]

One place has an actual policy against allowing natural death in the community—the remote Norwegian town of Longyearbyen in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. In this case, the prohibition is a practical response to the unusual environmental conditions in the region.[11]

Contents

In antiquity

The island of Delos had death, along with birth, prohibited to "purify" the island and render it fit for the proper worship of the gods. At the time it was considered a sacred and holy place by the ancient Greeks. The prohibition was made by the tyrant Pisistratus, of the city-state of Athens, who had first ordered that all graves within sight of the island's temple be dug up and the bodies removed to locations on or beyond the perimeter, and then, under instruction from the Delphic Oracle, that the entire island be purged of all dead bodies.

In Spain

Death has been prohibited in the Andalucian town of Lanjarón.[1] The village, with 4,000 inhabitants, is to remain with this law until the government buys land for a new cemetery. The mayor who issued the edict explains that the awkward new law is his response to politicians urging him to do a quick fix of a long lasting problem,[1] specifically describing his own bylaw as "absurd ... to counter an absurd situation".[3]

In France

Prohibition of death has occurred in three settlements in southern France: Cugnaux,[2] Le Lavandou,[3] and Sarpourenx,[4] of which the mayor was inspired to pass the law due to the success of the mayor of Cugnaux in acquiring more space for tombstones in the village.[5] Ever since the law was passed in Sarpourenx, the village, with 240 inhabitants, has had just one death in all 2007. Still, unlike its predecessor, it has not yet obtained approval for expanding the cemetery.

The situation in Cugnaux had been a bit different though. About 60 people died there per year and the cemetery was indeed full, leaving as the only area free of charge which could qualify as an extension to the current cemetery at that time a portion of land bordering an ammunition depot of military barracks, which meant a danger of deflagration and, henceforth, no approval from the government to build the extension there,[2] until the government finally approved the land.

In Brazil

About 20 towns in Brazil have faced exhaustion of capacity of cemeteries for more corpses, of which one of them is attempting to directly prohibit death: Biritiba-Mirim; of which the town's mayor has filed a bill, specifically a public bill, to make it illegal for the people living in the town to die. Though no specific punishments have been presented, the mayor intends to target relatives of people who die with fines and even jail if necessary to get more space for tombstones.

The main reason for the attempt to pass such a law with such severe punishments if broken is that the town's 28,000 inhabitants apparently do not look after their health properly, making them more vulnerable to death, which would mean having to bury more corpses in the already full cemetery. Since the cemetery was inaugurated in 1910, over 50,000 people have been buried in 3,500 crypts and tombs. In November 2005, the cemetery was declared to be full and 20 recently deceased residents were forced to share a crypt, and several others were buried under the walkways.

The mayor, to support his uncommon proposal for a law, stated that 89% of the town is occupied by rivers, of which most are underground and serve as vital water sources for nearly two million people living in São Paulo, and that the remaining percent is protected because it consists of tropical jungle. So, public land with five times the size of the cemetery was set aside to provide space for a new one, of which environmental experts claim that it will not affect water tables or surrounding tropical forest. The environment council decided to analyze such a solution carefully, while the state government had agreed to help build a new vertical cemetery; but, up to now, nothing has been done, and the law has not yet been passed, leaving the situation in suspense.[6][7][8]

In the United Kingdom

It is often thought to be illegal to die in the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament sits, and other royal palaces. There is no piece of legislation that states a person cannot die in the Palace; however, any person who does so might be eligible for a funeral at royal expense.[9] Prime minister Spencer Perceval died in the lobby of the House of Commons after being assassinated there on May 11, 1812. Other deaths on the premises are said to have taken place at St. Thomas' Hospital, the nearest hospital to the palace.[10]

In Norway

The town of Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, has attempted to prevent any natural deaths from taking place in the community since the 1930s, when it was discovered that bodies in the town cemetery did not decompose because the region is underlain by permafrost. As a result, the cemetery has not allowed any new burials since then. People in the community who fall gravely ill are evacuated by air or ship to the Norwegian mainland, where they can be buried should they die. If someone does die in the community due to accident, sudden illness, or other misfortune, his or her body is buried elsewhere, generally on the mainland.[11]

Media and people's responses

Though the passing of the law is commonly perceived as a laughing matter by most of the world, several villagers involved in the possibility of breaking the law have expressed their concerns clearly. "I haven't got a job, nor am I healthy. And now they say I can't die. That's ridiculous"[6] said a man in Biritiba-Mirim, and "It may be a laughing matter for some, but not for me"[4] was expressed by a 70 year old man from Sarpourenx.

Still, in not all cases have the villagers expressed complaints and negative responses to such a law. For instance, in the case of Lanjarón, the edict has become wildly popular amongst residents, and even amongst political opponents of the mayor who issued the law, and was received with a sense of humor from most.[1]

The aide to the mayor of Biritiba-Mirim summarized the situation of the possibility of making death illegal in the following way:

Of course the bill is laughable, unconstitutional, and will never be approved. But can you think of a better marketing strategy to persuade the government to modify the environmental legislation that is barring us from building a new cemetery?[6]

References

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