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Michael O'Doherty: The Long Goodbye

What do restaurants and funerals have in common?

Relax, it's a rhetorical question. Out to dinner during the week, I finally cottoned on to one of the reasons why so many restaurants are suffering financially. Sure, the recession is the prime cause, and yes, staff and raw materials are expensive, meaning margins are tighter than ever.

But there's another reason. We arrived in a city centre tapas restaurant at about 9pm, waited for our table -- you can't book there -- and noticed a party of four at the table next to us. They'd finished eating, had drained their last bottle of wine, and were just settling the bill. An hour and a half later, as we were leaving, they were still there.

I've seen this time and time again. With most restaurants no longer running a set number of sittings per night, they rely on people taking a reasonable amount of time over lunch or dinner so as to keep a regular flow through of customers. But some people just don't get it.

The real reason so many restaurants are dying is because of stragglers -- the people who've finished their dinner, but haven't. They idly saunter through the night, chowing down on their food and wine with hardly a word exchanged, wait for the dessert to be removed in front of them, and the arrival of the bill.

And when it does -- well, it's like a doctor's just told them they've got a month to live. Suddenly, conversations are struck up, memories are shared, plans are made, laughter fills the air and, without actually ordering anything more from the menu, you'd have thought the night was just beginning. As though embarking on a round-the-world trip with a tumour gnawing away at their brain, they try and cram everything they'd wanted to say all night over their final glass of wine. While the staff hover around, make excuses to the waiting customers, and eventually lose their jobs when the restaurant goes out of business.

The problem is that we can't let go. Be it a table in a restaurant, or the memory of a loved one, getting up and finally saying goodbye is an almost unbearable wrench for most. I've been to two funerals in the past week, and the sad, desperate way that relatives clung on to the coffin in each case revealed how afraid they were to let it out of their grasp, as this was the last goodbye.

Or at least I thought it was, until I got home. Scrolling through my phone, I came across the number of the person whose funeral I'd just attended. And suddenly I was faced with that ultimate, 21st century dilemma -- to delete their number from my address book or not...

I'm not sure what it is. Perhaps it's the fact that it's a private thing, that there's no audience to see you make the grand gesture of goodbye, which makes it ironically so hard to do. Or perhaps it's the fact that it's almost a betrayal, an acknowledgement that their memory has ceased to exist. And maybe, deep down, there's a feeling that if you ever dialled that number again (I never have), you might hear their voicemail and, for that fleeting moment, they weren't just back -- they were never really gone.

I've got the phone numbers of three dead people in my phone, and I simply can't bring myself to delete them. Weird, or what?

Michael O'Doherty is the publisher of the VIP magazine group