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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Death and Funerals: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

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 some traditions, the ashes resulting from cremation are scattered. In Japan, the tradition of removing bones from ashes with special long chopsticks is directly related to the prohibition of handing food directly from one pair of chopsticks to another. Newer approaches include scattering the ashes in a beloved place, compressing them into diamond, burying them in a capsule that will germinate a tree, or even mummifying them.

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:


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Natural disasters: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with lots of disaster videos!

Natural disasters made for a great hour's chat! We started out talking about how different regions are susceptible to different kinds of disasters. California is known for its earthquakes. Oklahoma is known for tornadoes, and Florida for hurricanes (less well for sinkholes!). Some kinds of disasters can be predicted, and some can't. For some, you only get a very short warning. In regions that are susceptible, children are taught how to respond to keep themselves safe.

Technology has improved the prediction of many kinds of disasters. Tornadoes are somewhat predictable, though their precise path is not. Tsunami can now be predicted by a few minutes. Earthquakes are far harder to predict (I've never actually experienced an earthquake after an earthquake warning).

In earthquakes, you want to stay away from bookshelves (any loaded shelves really) and glass. The strength of the earthquake is measured by the Richter scale, but the effect of the quake depends on your infrastructure preparedness. California has building codes that minimize the effect of earthquakes. Other regions of the world do not, and experience far more destruction and loss of life. Tall buildings can be designed to sway, both in earthquakes and in hurricanes.

Brian noted that in the Netherlands, houses are not built on foundations, but on anchors. Floodwater raises the house with air tanks. The Netherlands also has tide barriers.

On the Gulf coast, houses are often built on stilts, with garage and storage on the ground floor in case of floods.

We made a list of all the types of disasters we could think of (and I'm sure we missed some): earthquake, flood, hurricane, tornado, tsunami, volcanic eruption (lava, explosion, ash), sinkhole, blizzard, landslide, mudslide, forest fire, asteroid, explosive sinkhole, lightning or severe thunderstorm, large hail, polar vortex, drought, ice storm, sandstorm, dust storm... We even thought of a fictional disaster: Thread, from the Anne McCaffrey books!

This video, "A Day in Pompeii" is an incredible dramatization of the destruction of Pompeii by the volcano, and I highly recommend it:

A volcanic disaster also features stunningly in the Firebird sequence of the film Fantasia 2000:
Disasters of this kind have an enormous effect on an area, and preparedness for them has an enormous effect on the culture of an area. Anne McCaffrey did an amazing job playing out the cultural consequences of Threadfall in her books, and N. K. Jemisin's book The Fifth Season deals with seismic disasters that befall humans so regularly (in this secondary world) that everything about their life has changed.

There can be different perspectives on disaster. Lava falling into the sea encourages the development of new life forms, fire helps certain types of tree seeds to germinate, and specially adapted organisms survive in calderas and geysers.

Che recommended the disaster movie Reign of Fire. We asked whether The Wizard of Oz could be called a disaster movie (probably not, but it features a tornado rather prominently!).

What is the impact of a disaster? Is it like armageddon? Are there techniques to mitigate it? In a sandstorm, do you have special fabric to keep the sand out of your face (nose and mouth)?

After a disaster, people have an instinct to reach out to their loved ones and friends to check up on them. When I was a kid, the phone lines would get all tied up after an earthquake. These days we have the services of social media, as when Facebook set up a site where people could check on victims of the Nepal earthquake. Often, people are urged to text rather than call.

I also highly recommended the following documentary, by ESPN, called "The Day the Series Stopped" which explores the 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. Please be aware that some of the images are graphic.

One of the interesting things about a disaster that forces you to hide or hunker down is that you can't tell how bad the damage is until you come out and start getting in touch with people.

Thank you to everyone who joined us for this discussion. It was a fascinating one.