Moving into a new place is great! Putting your pictures on the walls, turning it from an apartment into a home, thinking about all the adventures you’re going to have there, lying awake at night wondering how many people gasped their last breath inches away from where your face is…
As much as we may not want to think about it, it’s a simple fact that buildings last longer than people. When a life ends, a building goes on, and new people arrive. It’s the circle of life: Logically, everyone’s got to die somewhere, and knowing someone shuffled off this mortal coil in your home shouldn’t really affect anything, but somehow, it does.
Dead people predate buildings, of course. There’s a whole subgenre of horror dedicated to what happens if you build on a Native American burial ground, and in the U.K., there are entire housing estates built on plague pits. Cities have been bombed, invaded and destroyed by natural disasters — we’re all aware of this on some level, but those deaths seem slightly more abstract than things that happened in the actual rooms you inhabit. Thinking about lives coming to an end within your very walls, a heart-stopping forever in the spot you now sit in to play PlayStation, is oddly compelling.
Why, though? Why does it matter, or at least interest us, that we might be occupying space that someone breathed their last in? “A property isn’t just bricks and mortar,” says psychogeographer Gareth E. Rees. “It’s made of stories. The hopes, dreams, betrayals, arguments, lives and deaths of people who came before. This gives a place a deep resonance that we should cherish, not whitewash. When we move into property we become temporary custodians of it, adding another layer of stories to those that came before. This is why we feel connected to the dead in those places we dwell.”
Rees moved into a house on the south coast of the U.K. seven years ago, as described in his book The Stone Tide. “We knew that the elderly woman who sold it to us had once lived there with her husband and another family,” he says. “Both the husbands had died. I could see where one of them must have smoked a pipe in a corner chair, or perhaps a bed, because there was a deep yellow stain on the cornice above. We could see the handwriting of dead Victorian builders on the walls when we scraped the wallpaper away. The layers of time were thin in that place.”
Speaking of time, exactly how many people have died in your building is obviously very dependent on how old the building is, how old the town is and even how old the country is. The oldest surviving apartment buildings in New York City only date from the 1880s, while there’s a manor house near Bristol in the U.K. that’s been continuously occupied since 1150. Some places see more death than others: There are apartment blocks in Japan that are populated almost exclusively by the elderly and dying (don’t click on that link, it’s fucking heartbreaking), while the population of Provo in Utah has an average age of 23, so the only deaths there are likely to be tragedies. There are American cities that were uninhabited wilderness just a few decades ago, and most of the 19 percent of U.S. homes that have been built since 2000 have probably never had anyone die in them.
But the older a building you inhabit, the higher the chance that at least one person has died there. “Any building more than 70 years old would have had at least one person die in it,” says Sue Brayne, author of Living Fully, Dying Consciously: The Path to Spiritual Wellbeing and The D-Word: Talking About Dying. “Death was part of life, and before we had antibiotics and other medical miracles, huge numbers of women died in childbirth, and vast numbers of children died before the age of five.”
Here’s another thing we forget: The home used to be where dying took place. These days, fewer than a fifth of people die at home, with the majority of the rest dying in the hospital. However, that wasn’t always the case — the middle of the last century was when it all changed. “Until the Second World War, most non-violent deaths — i.e., not accidents/war/suicide and so on — happened at home,” says Brayne. “Hospitals existed, but in the vast majority of cases, the dying were cared for at home, surrounded by family and friends.”
Advances in medicine brought about by the war changed that, says Brayne. “The rising power of doctors and life-extending medicine completely changed our relationship with death and dying, and shifted the power from the priest at the bedside, as people began to die in hospitals.”
If you’re feeling smug right now because you live in a nice, new-looking apartment complex in a freshly-bulldozed and gentrified area of town, well, you might want to hold your horses: Your newish apartment might once have been a death-filled hospital. Or an insane asylum. Or any other death-filled use for a structure one might care to name. There could have been literally hundreds of deaths right under your nose. Death is a constant: Every town has a witch house or murder house — some even have murder Airbnbs.
For the average house or apartment, though, we shouldn’t experience the knowledge that someone died there as horror. It simply means that, before they died, they lived there — a human being with all their foibles, complexities, dreams and passions. The number of deaths that took place there is (hopefully) dramatically dwarfed by the amount of times people fell in love there, or figured out what they wanted from life, or maybe did a weird, cool sex thing they hadn’t done before. Death was just one point at the end of their story, and from that ending, a whole bunch of new stories must have begun. Human history is lovely and important!
Obviously, none of that applies if the body is still there and there are guts, shit and bits of brain on the floor. That’s another thing entirely and a lot less romantic. Not to mention, it’s really time to fire your real estate agent.