Where in the world is it illegal to die?


UK – Six towns have outlawed dying since 1999, with penalties ranging from fines to increased taxes – and they’re far from the first. It seems like a joke but is there sometimes a sensible reason?

Five hundred and thirty-seven people live in Sellia, a medieval hillside town right on the ball of the foot of Italy. In the 1960s, it was three times that, and today most residents are over 65. As a result, Sellia’s laws are also developing a medieval flavour. Last month, in response to its demographic crisis, the mayor, Davide Zicchinella, signed Ordinanza 11 which makes it expressly “forbidden to get ill within the municipality” and insists that “dying is prohibited”. Those who selfishly refuse to take the necessary steps to comply with this law by attending health checks can expect to be fined €10 a year.

“By law, I could not [ban dying] directly,” says Zicchinella, a paediatrician by trade. “You cannot order an impossibility by law. But my intention is to fight death.” As he told the press at the time: “We’ve put this measure into effect not as a joke, but as something truly serious, because Sellia, like many other towns in southern Italy, is affected by depopulation. Those who don’t take good care of themselves, or who take on habits that are against their health, will be punished with more taxes.”

Sellia is not the first town in the world to try to outlaw dying – indeed, it is not even one of the first five. In recent years, similar measures have been taken in Cugnaux (2007) and Sarpourenx (2008) in France, Biritiba Mirim in Brazil (2005), Lanjaron in Spain (1999) and Falciano del Massico (2012), also in Italy. In each of these previous cases, the issue had been the local cemetery, which was running out of room, driving the local authorities to desperate measures.

It is absolutely stupid to authorise a supermarket but not a graveyard

“We had a very bad problem,” remembers Philippe Guérin, who was mayor of Cugnaux, near Toulouse, at the time. Guérin wanted to build a new cemetery on unused land attached to a local airfield, but could not get the decision approved by the prefecture (the French equivalent of a local authority). This seemed absurd to him since the land had, at one time, been approved for the far more disruptive purpose of building a supermarket. “I spoke to many people,” Guérin says. “I tried to get an appointment with the prefect. I sent a letter to the [interior] ministry. No success. So we were a bit frustrated and we said, ‘OK, because it is absolutely stupid to authorise a supermarket but not a graveyard, we have to stop people dying.’”

This sounds ridiculous. All right, it is ridiculous. Fans of Chris Morris will recall that in the 1990s, the idea was actual comedy. In a section of On the Hour called The Death Penalty, Morris approaches a passerby and asks: “What do you think should be the penalty for death?” Startled passerby: “I think in some cases you should hang them.” “So if you die, you should be hanged?” “Yes.”

Now and then, however, it has been taken seriously. Suicide, of course, was illegal in Britain until 1961 – and in several places, it still is. Obviously, such a law has little meaning for those who have died, but people found to have attempted suicide are still sometimes punished. The Malaysian penal code, for instance, stipulates that: “Whoever attempts to commit suicide, and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or with both.”

Even where the authorities accept that people sometimes die, steps have been taken to eradicate the practice from particular places. In the 5th century BC, Thucydides recorded that dying (and indeed giving birth) were both prohibited on the sacred island of Delos, in order to satisfy the era’s rather high-maintenance gods. “All the tombs of those who had died in Delos were dug up,” Thucydides wrote, “and it was proclaimed that in future, no deaths or births were to be allowed on the island; those who were about to die or give birth were to be carried across to Rhenea.”

Itsukushima – no cemeteries or hospitals

A similar notion gripped the Japanese island of Itsukushima, considered holy in Shintoism, where dying or giving birth was banned until 1868, and where there are still no cemeteries or hospitals. Fortunately, both Delos and Itsukushima are very small and close to other, more suitable land masses, so the gods’ requirements were just about manageable.

The same cannot be said of Longyearbyen, on Norway’s distant Arctic island Spitsbergen, where dying has been banned since 1950, after it was discovered that corpses buried in the local graveyard simply were not decomposing because of the cold. Indeed, live samples of the virus that caused the catastrophic Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 were recently extracted from some of the bodies there. Today, people approaching death in Longyearbyen are flown to the mainland for their final days. Although, given the lack of any elderly care provision, most have long since taken the hint.

The old “ban on death” manoeuvre, in short, is often the local government equivalent of a naked calendar – a good-natured way of driving attention to their cause. In Sellia, 100 people signed up for their health checks in the flurry of publicity that followed the prohibition of dying and, who knows, perhaps one or two did have their lives saved as a result. As for Cugnaux, eight years later, it still doesn’t have its cemetery. “It should be open in a few years,” Guérin insists. “In France, it takes a lot of time.”


Photo: Sellia in Italy. By Olaf Tausch (Self-photographed) [GFDL (httpwww.gnu.orgcopyleftfdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons