Sunday, March 05, 2017

Death of a Life-Saver

Weird-bearded men, some with black-banded battle braided hair and thick chains hanging from their waists and pockets, stood silently in a semi-circle on the beach with their mates, their heavy "bovver" boots planted firmly on the sifted white sand, facing into the stiff onshore breeze and the wind-whipped rising tide.

A ceremony was about to begin. Curious, I joined the back of the crowd.

A man in tartan played a familar hymn on the mournful bagpipes. An all-male team of rescue-swimmers, bare footed, wearing dark boardies and sash patterned tops stood with their hands folded like soccer goalies stood at a tangent to the sea. With them stood double ranks of men in dark uniform tracksuits.

There was one easel holding red and white flowers in the lozenge shape of a red cross. At the water's edge was a pure white surf boat, broad, shallow, with the prow pointing inland and the blade of one oar resting on the side.  Midway between the rising tide and the assembly was a lone, freshly painted, orange baywatcher's high chair flanked on each side by two rescue floats. A furled flag lay across the seat.

A man read the words of the seaman's hymn "For Those In Peril On The Sea" as a prayer. Several people spoke into a hand held microphone and into the wind. The wind carried many of the words away, but it became clear that this was a funeral service for a lifeguard who had died too soon. When all who wished to share memories had done so, the bagpiper played "Amazing Grace".

The rescue-swim team received something... two somethings... and proceeded to the surfboat and launched it with difficulty into the high and heaving surf. One man did not make it into the boat. Perhaps he was not supposed to.  The oars were raised vertically in a formal salute, and then they rowed up into the roaring breakers, over the foaming tops, now hidden from the shore on the windward side, now thrashing up the rising face of a near Macker.

Past the surf line, past the impact zone, and into choppy but waveless water, the surf boat turned parallel to the shore and again raised their oars like a forest of masts in a vertical salute. Something bobbed and floated. After a while, they rowed parallel to the shore, then turned and came surfing in, riding the churning waves.

When the surf boat was beached and the crew had tumbled out and rejoined the funeral afterglow, one lone strong swimmer swam like a champion back out to sea, heading for whatever it was that was still floating. I watched him and worried. Was this supposed to happen?  With quiet competence, he retrieved a life-saver's float, and also a washed-ashore lost oar.

This interesting ceremony made me wonder, what might an alien funeral be like?  For inspiration, I googled "strange funerals" from different parts of our own world.

Some traditions are widely known. Anyone who has watched the James Bond movies has seen the Jazz funerals of New Orleans, and the Zoroastrian "tower of silence". The Neanderthal "flower funerals" might have inspired the burial of Rue under flowers in the first "Hunger Games" movie. Possibly the Arthurian myths of Merlin trapped in the bole of a tree by Morgan Le Fay might share something in common with a Manilan culture that buries its dead inside hollowed tree trunks. Not dissimilar is the culture that pulps the remains of the dead, and inters what is left inside totem poles.

Another woodland culture suspends the dead in containers from ancient trees. Yet another people hang occupied coffins from cliff sides so that the spirits may be conveniently close to the sky.

Other "sky" burials in arid or mountainous countries such as Tibet involve the willing participation of vultures. Allegedly, even recently, there are communities where the dead are a valued source of protein and there is a strict pecking order about which relative may consume specific body parts. (Apparently, a sister-in-law may enjoy a deceased female relation's buttocks.)

While some of us seafaring folk, or small islanders who cannot spare meager farming or rainwater catchment areas for cemetaries may cremate and scatter ashes at sea, and sailors on the high seas sink weighted bodies reverently into the depths of the ocean, other communities compress the dead into reef balls to enhance the reef habitat for fish.

Other cultures compress corpses of loved ones into colorful beads that can be kept as ornaments. Yet another business turns ashes into carbon, and then crushes the carbon to create diamonds so that loved ones can become precious rings for their survivors' fingers.

Banned now is the practice of female survivors being forced to hack off parts of their fingers whenever a close family member died. Apparently, the ancient Hindu requirement (suttee or Sati) that widows throw themselves (often not willingly) into their deceased spouse's pyre  may not have been quite extinguished. Many misogynistic customs that kill off widows have implausible rationales, but most boil down to the physical and financial security of the males.

Arguably more tender are the societies that mummify their dead, and treat them as if they are still alive. Most mummification requires the dearth of moisture and the absence of bugs.  The most remarkable process might be the 3,000 self-mummification exercise carried out by priests who would eat a 1,000-day fat-reducing diet of nuts and seeds, succeeded by another 1,000 days of eating bark and perhaps pine needles and poisonous tea to make their flesh unattractive to bugs.  This would also make the monk or priest violently ill, which would further dehydrate him. After that, he would be walled up with only an air tube and a small bell to ring once a day until he died of starvation. Finally, his air hole would be sealed and his remains would be left for another 1,000 for mummification to be completed. This process was recently described in DISCOVER magazine, and also in one of the online sources mentioned below.




I've omitted mention of many practices, but, perhaps this inspires some ideas for alien romance fiction funerary customs.

All the best,
Rowena Cherry

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