In these series of posts I will be looking informally at the taboo nature of death and funerals. This post focuses on how we avoid the topic. Specifically how death is handled (and possibly thought of) in the same way as excrement.
The last post looked at sex, and how it shared similarities with death in terms of its taboo nature. However, as I explained in that post there are some notable differences between sex and death. While both are considered 'taboo' sex is talked about a lot. So they have similarities, but sex is really not that viable a comparison to death, at least not on its own.
Yet there is a topic which does have more similarity to death in the specific way we avoid it. That is the topic of human waste. Excrement is fast becoming a serious issue around the world, especially as populations grow. Currently about 2.4 billion people do not have access to proper sewage systems. In India where only about 11% of people have toilets connected to the sewer system around 70% of water pollution is due to excrement (source 1, source 2). This is not an issue confined to India, or even poor nations. It is something we all have to deal with and constantly as we are all down stream of someone. I remember a story of a doctor in Bondi, how there would be a rise of surfers with ear infections after a storm. Because during storms the sewage treatment plant would have to vent the untreated sewage into the sea or risk overflowing. Which caused minor ear infections in those who went to the beach regularly.
How we treat and manage sewage is a big deal, that affects us all around the world. Yet it is something we do not talk about. Most people do not know the sewage treatment plant empties raw sewage during storms. Most people do not know excrement is such an issue, intentionally or locally. We do not talk about it, we avoid the topic as it is rather unsavoury. It is something that makes us uneasy as it is considered dirty and polluting.
Here it is no different from death and funerals. Death is considered by many to be a dirty thing, an unsavoury thing. For example many regard the tools used as some how 'marked' with the essence of the dead bodies they were used on or in. Some go so far as to not even want a funeral home near where they live (unless they need a funeral that is). There was the story I posted not long ago of a neighbour calling the police about a body at a funeral home.
Death is considered a dirty thing, just like excrement. A thing which we want separate and removed from 'decent' society. Sewage treatment systems are removed from sight, kept away from a public eye. Which is the same with death. Very few hospitals will label where mortuary is or even label the mortuary door. Usually the hospital mortuary is in the loading docks, down in the service parts of the hospital. In some hospitals it is even next to things like the kitchen, laundry, waste collection area and so on. In the majority of cases the hospital mortuary is in a service corridor and behind a simple door that looks like it belongs to a janitors closet. Hospitals hide the mortuary in most cases, as though to hide it is to hide death.
We mark death as taboo, but also unsavoury and unpleasant, treating it more like the topic of excrement than sex. We avoid discussing it in 'polite' company despite there being no set regulations or laws. Much like sewage death is removed to the back rooms, away from the public eye and from public conversation.
This is where the funeral industry comes in. It takes death away from us, deals with it for us and presents us with a finished end product which we then romanticise. However, oddly enough the funeral industry does not deal with death itself. There is a perception that the funeral industry is dealing with death privately and discretely. But the funeral industry is really dealing with the funeral, which is an outcomes of death. The funeral industry does not really deal with death itself other than the public perception and death's relationship to the funeral service.
Death is treated like excrement, distanced and avoided even without needing laws or official customs for this. We consider it inappropriate or indecent to discuss death in many situations or with many people. This is because we consider death itself to be an indecent and unsavoury.