We talk about quite a few subjects here at Dive into Worldbuilding that involve cultural taboos. As it turned out, death was a topic that took us a bit of time to warm up to - but became incredibly rich and interesting once we got rolling.
I remarked that before germ theory was widely accepted, death appeared to be something that "just happened," but that afterward, it changed so that death somehow became a kind of surrender, or failure. It changes the way we talk about death, but also contributes to the overtreatment of people who are terminally ill, and to the view of people who accept death as quitters. In Little Women, one of the sisters just seems to fade away and finally die. In The Tale of Genji, a character will be there one day and then will just be gone the next.
Infant mortality used to be far more common than it is today. The idea that parents should not bury their children, while compelling, is relatively modern (unless perhaps you are speaking about adult children). Glenda told us that her mom was born in 1910 and was not given a name because they thought she was not going to live. Morgan told us she'd heard of a culture in which babies are not named before 3 weeks of age because it is seen as making them more likely to die. In Grimm's fairy tales you see people named "No man"/"no name" There were cases when children hadn't yet been named and then the parent had died, so they ended up either nameless or searching for a surviving parent to try to get named.
Morgan brought up the question of rituals to dispose of dead bodies. In New Orleans, bodies are buried in mausolea because if they were buried the water content of the soil would cause the coffins to resurface. The mausolea are also a way to show off family wealth. Pyres are another method, as is cremation in a special location. Sky burial meant hanging up a body to be torn apart by carrion birds and carried off. Funeral cairns are another tradition, as are coffins, or simple burial with or without a marker. Apparently, in China there was a tradition of burying a body for a year and then digging up and keeping the bones. In different places in the world you can also find cities of the dead, or places where bodies are interred in wall alcoves for a period of time, then the bones removed and built into structures. The Sedlec Ossuary of Kutna Hora is a dramatic example of this.
In Victorian times, you will find portraits of families where one family member is deceased. Because of the novelty of photography, it was the first time you could have a remembrance of the dead person through a photo.
Funerals are important because they gather people together and re-establish social connections after a member of the community has died. Whether these are joyous, acrimonious, or tense events depends on the people involved as well as the culture in which they occur. We spoke about funeral-related films like The Funeral, a dark comedy by Juzo Itami, and Departures (mentioned by Che). In many cultural traditions there are practices intended to keep evil spirits away. In Judaism, there is the kaddish prayer, and the kaddish ritual for preparing the body. In the Inca culture, bodies were often prepared in a seated position and decorated. Caves have sometimes been used for interring bodies. Some weather conditions are more conducive to mummification than others (dry weather conditions in the Andes and in early Egypt certainly were). More elaborate mummification rituals probably were developed over time. Some monks in Tibet self-mummify in a pose of meditation and are viewed as being in a meditative state from which they may eventually wake. Mummies are revered.
What are bodies being prepared for? It's a good question to ask if you are working with a secondary world. Is there another world they are supposedly traveling to? Do they need to lie in state and be viewed by the public?
Do people who prepare the body loot the body? There were instances in Victorian times when people would sell the clothes, rings, etc. of the dead person because they could not count on the deceased's relatives to pay them. Sometimes a body would be sold to medical students.
In some traditions, people would put coins on a body's eyes or tongue to pay the ferryman who took their spirit to the land of the dead. This could also have functioned as a sort of indirect payment to the people who buried them.
In many cultures, people have been buried with grave goods. These can include flowers, beads, weapons, statues of items they will need in the afterlife, and even a terra cotta army! They might be buried with living people who are supposed to accompany them (like their wives). They might be buried with a favorite toy, or with food for their journey. The common idea seems to be that grave goods "go with" the person's spirit.
In Japanese temples and cemeteries you often see statues of the god Jizo adorned with red bibs.
Romans would make death masks of their ancestors.
In Japan, a Buddhist family will often keep an altar somewhere in the house, and will keep pictures of ancestors in this location.
What is the color of death? Is it black, as it is in the US? Is it white (China)?
What do people wear to funerals? How long do they mourn, and what does that mean?
We ended up at the end of our discussion with lots and lots of questions, so we'll be taking this topic up again this week, on Thursday, June 18th at 3:00pm Pacific. I hope you will join us!
Here's the video: