Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Culture of Death: A Google+ worldbuilding hangout report

Last week I was joined by Leigh Dragoon, Dale Emery, Janet Harriet and Glenda Pfeiffer for a discussion of the Culture of Death. Considering how dark the discussion could have been, I felt it was actually wonderful - more intellectually engaged, and at the same time more personal, than I had feared.

We began with the idea that despite the uniformity of the phenomenon of death across the world, it is responded to with an incredible diversity of practices. These practices vary across countries, but they have also varied across history, in part because of the way science has changed the way we interact with death.

We started in with some examples of death practices. In Japan, Buddhism is often seen as the religion that handles death the best (in comparison with Shintoism and Christianity). It is said that people are born Shinto, get married Christian (or Shinto), but die Buddhist. The Buddhist ceremonies in response to death occur at regular intervals after the death has occurred, which we felt fit well with the way that people endure grief. Leigh also noted (somewhat later in the discussion) that Islam provides for different funerals at intervals. Sometimes death is celebrated, as in the Irish wake (involving drinking and music). Janet mentioned the New Orleans funeral in this context - a procession that begins somberly but ends with a huge party. In 2010 when my own family went to Europe, we encountered a funeral procession in the city of Aosta, Italy. The coffin was being carried by about eight pallbearers and accompanied by a four or five piece brass band - a combination which we found quite unusual. One of the participants asked me if they hired dirge singers (answer: I don't know, but I didn't hear any), and mentioned that the book Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay involves hired mourners. I brought everyone's attention to this terrific post that Joyce Chng (Twitter @jolantru) contributed to my Culture Share, entitled "Qing Ming and Seventh Month - no, they are not Halloween." In it, she describes Singaporean funeral practices and the "ghost month."

Out of Joyce's post I remarked on the presence of different colors in the funeral ceremony and we moved to discussing colors associated with death - like brown sack-cloth and red threads. In the US and in many other countries, black is the color associated with death. In China and some other countries, white is the color associated with death. This is something I've taken advantage of in my own worldbuilding: in Varin, the goddess who cares for the spirits of the virtuous dead is Elinda, the moon, so the color of death is moon yellow, and people going to a funeral bind yellow scarves around their arms just below the elbow, with the ends hanging down toward their feet.

Religion is very closely associated with death, I think because one of its functions is to provide explanation, social support and comfort. We don't always attend to questions of death or cosmology in our day to day lives, but an event like a death causes us to reach out for this kind of support. Dale insightfully described celebrating the dead through ceremony as a spiritual act.

Indeed, there is a strong sense of community built up among people who attend a funeral, and I believe part of the function of death celebrations is to bring a community together after a catastrophic event of this nature that might otherwise cause people to drift apart. Janet described it as figuring out a new social order without the presence of that individual, and mentioned cases like the death of a president, and the symbolism in the way the airplane flight formation comes back together.

These kinds of elements can form a wonderful part of any world you are building, and give a great glimpse into the cosmology, expectations and thinking processes of a people. Anything that is a cultural affirmation can take different forms in different cultural contexts. In our own world, a funeral can be a very  personal affair, or it can be exceedingly public, symbolic of maintaining the current social order (as a state funeral), or it can even be an event which foments violence and revolution - everything depends on the meaning lent to it by the people involved. Extreme examples of this would be the protests of the Westboro Baptist Church and the events surrounding political martyrdom.

I brought up the idea of the death of Steve Jobs, because it seemed to have taken so many people by surprise. In this culture, there is something of the expectation that death doesn't happen, or that it only happens to "old people" - but of course, who is considered old is another thing that changes with time, medicine and culture.

We also talked about euphemisms. As with any kind of phenomenon considered frightening or distasteful, euphemisms swarm around the way we talk about death. Dale mentioned the death of his dog, which he had described in a letter as having the dog "put down," and told us of his shock when a Swedish friend described it as him having had his dog "killed." Janet told us that in her family, the primary euphemism was to describe someone as "being called home." Another common phrase is to say "passed" or "passed on." This area is an incredibly rich one for worldbuilding. Just by creating a single euphemism you can express an enormous amount about how the people in your world conceptualize the universe - death, an afterlife, etc. Dale mentioned a story by Joe Haldeman called "A Tangled Web" (Analog, Sept. 1981) in which people expressed embarrassment by saying, "I die, and my death creates trouble for the community."

Because of the way demographics work, and the way we travel through periods of our lives where certain things are expected to happen, there can be times when death seems to be coming in a wave all at once. This is mostly a product of our internal point of view on the stage of life we are in, because people are being born all the time, but we tend to know more people who are roughly of the same age we are. (Though it would be interesting to consider what life would be like if people weren't being born all the time.) Janet mentioned how this can be seen as bringing about the end of an era, the way that we tend to track when veterans of a particular war, or witnesses of an event, become fewer and finally disappear. Quite recently I saw a news story about the death of the last veteran of World War I. Leigh mentioned that many recordings of Holocaust survivors' stories were made in the 1990's, because people became aware that many of them were dying and didn't want their stories to be lost with them.

Dale asked, "How do we decide what we want to record about people's lives?" It's a fascinating question for worldbuilding. Certain types of information get recorded for posterity, and certain types do not - and the method of recording influences this hugely. Just compare a person's diary with his/her YouTube channel!

Perhaps inevitably, the question of Zombies came up. Robots too - I guess because we were looking for dramatically different models and a little bit of humor on the side. We asked, "Is death inevitable?" What if you could back yourself up into a robot? In this context we discussed Brad Torgerson's 2010 story, "Outbound," involving a boy who at a certain point was transformed into digital form. We also mentioned the ghosts of Harry Potter, and the "Deathday party" that Nearly Headless Nick celebrated in Chamber of Secrets. Would there be circumstances (as with zombies or ghosts or backups) where death would constitute the beginning of life? Dale gave me a great link to a humorous piece by Monty Python, Funeral Arrangements. Because it is so emotionally fraught, death is actually the subject of a lot of humor - Juzo Itami's film The Funeral comes to mind.

Our last major topic was the processing of dead bodies. There are lots of ways of doing this - burial, cremation, burial at sea, etc. Many may have arisen from the desire to keep the dead body from infecting the living (though there is a notable exception to this in the case of cannibalism). Some traditions put the body on display, seeing it as a necessary piece of evidence that the spirit of the person is gone, and thus providing a sense of closure for the survivors. On the other hand, there are plenty of issues surrounding this. What if the person died in a car accident? Do you cover up the damage done to the body? We talked about the idea of the "death picture" and how some mortuaries will try to make the body "perfect." (This creeped a few of us out.) Janet mentioned how sometimes children (and others) are encouraged not to see a person who is dying so that they maintain the image of that person's health in their mind. Leigh mentioned reading that the Greeks viewed becoming dead as a process that followed the initial death event, where preparations had to be made for the afterlife. She saw this as a more integrated view of death and life. In ancient Egypt the royals were mummified and provided with statues of servants, animals, and goods for the next life. In the Asian market near my house you can buy "death money" which you are supposed to burn to send to the dead.

Dale suggested (and I agree) that while one should ask, "What is hidden about death? What is displayed? Should stoicism be valued?" This question of appropriate behaviors for the survivors of a death (extreme wailing and tearing of hair versus stoicism etc) was one we barely touched on, but which provides rich opportunities for worldbuilders.

Here are a last couple of interesting links that came out of the discussion:
How Doctors Die (a discussion of cultural phenomena surrounding death and modern medicine)
The Greek Way of Death (the book mentioned by Leigh above)

Thanks to Leigh, Dale, Janet and Glenda for a wonderful and deep discussion. Today's topic will be illness and medicine. I hope to see you there!


  1. Thanks for sharing the 'How Doctors Die' article, Juliette; it was such an interesting read! I enjoyed this post, and it should be a big help considering I have two cultures who clash over their treatment of the dead (burying vs. burning). I'll definitely have to give some thought to how both groups would think and talk about death.

  2. Sophia, I'm so glad this could help you in your thinking. I very much appreciate the comment.