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Why Thor's Hammer is on military headstones

John Brownlee on how the U.S. military's epic journey into religious tolerance reached Odinism.
Mjölnir is a weapon of honor and virtue, and a fitting symbol for any noble warrior. So it’s appropriate that American soldiers can now request the symbol for Thor’s Hammer be placed on their headstone if they die in the line of duty. But Mjölnir’s path toward becoming an acceptable headstone option wasn’t easy. It practically took the power of Thor to get it there.

A history of unconventional violence

At Sciencezest, Annelie Wendeberg discusses the strange history of using dead bodies — both human and equine — as particularly messy projectiles during times of war. Maggie

Why perform an autopsy on James Gandolfini?

Doctors know he died of a heart attack, right? And he's not actually Tony Soprano, so the chances of someone secretly killing him and making it look like a heart attack are small. So what's the point? Accuracy, says David Dobbs at Nautilus. Research shows that doctors make a lot of mistakes when it comes to assessing death. Fifteen-to-thirty percent of the time, diagnoses of death are incorrect. Five-to-ten percent of the time, that mistake contributed to the patient's death. Maggie

Segregated headstones reach over the cemetery wall


These grave markers -- pressed up against either side of an imposing wall, with a pair of clasped hands reaching over the wall's top -- date to a time in Dutch history when Catholic and Protestant graves were strictly segregated. A Catholic and a Protestant married couple, separated in death, arranged for this unique workaround in order to rejoin one another:

In 1842, a colonel in the Dutch cavalry, JWC van Gorkum, married a woman known as JCPH van Aefferden. The union was controversial — van Gorkum was Protestant and van Aefferden was Catholic. Despite the prevailing culture at the time, the two remained married for decades, only separating when van Gorkum died in 1880. He was buried in a cemetery near the Dutch town of Roermond called Begraafplaats Nabij de Kapel in ‘t Zand (“the cemetery near the chapel in ‘t Zand”). Pillarisation was taken very seriously — each community had its own schools, media, and graveyards — and Begraafplaats was no different. It took this segregation literally, with each religion having its own section. Van Gorkum was buried in the Protestant section, as would any other Protestant during that era.

But when van Aefferden passed away eight years later, she couldn’t be buried with her late husband; even in death, Catholics needed to stay with their own. While alive, she made her wishes clear — she did not want to be buried in her family tomb, and, instead, wished to be as close to her husband as possible. The solution, seen above, is her grave site. (Here’s a bigger version of her tombstone, and here’s his.) The two tombstones, separated by a wall and by religions, feature a pair of hands connecting over the brick divider.

Until Death Do Us Reunite [Now I Know]

(via Super Punch)

Why delicate men die more frequently than robust ladies

In general, women outlive men. This is not a new idea. But what you might not know is that the effect can't be explained by some simple hand-waving about risk-taking men, or war, or the allure of the Marlboro Man. In fact, the tendency for men to die at a higher frequency than women happens at every age group — even in utero. Fetal males die more often than fetal females. So what makes the men-folk so delicate? NPR's Robert Krulwich investigates. Maggie

By His Things Will You Know Him (podcast)


(art by Daniel Martin Diaz)

Earlier today, we published my story "By His Things Will You Know Him," which is from the forthcoming Institute for the Future anthology "An Aura of Familiarity: Visions from the Coming Age of Networked Matter." I've read the story aloud for my podcast, if that's how you prefer your fiction.

MP3 Link

How many people have died in the Syrian civil war?

In the fog of war, it's not easy to figure out how many people die. Even in the cleanest combat, accurate records are not really a common military priority. Worse, there are often incentives for one side or the other to play up the death counts (or play them down), alter the picture of who is doing the killing and who is dying, and provide evidence that a conflict is getting better (or worse).

All of that creates a mess for outside observers who want to see accurate patterns in the chaos — patterns that can help us understand whether an evenly matched war has turned into a bloodbath, or a genocide. The Human Rights Data Analysis Group is an organization that takes the messy, often conflicting, information about deaths in a warzone and tries to make sense of it. Today, they released an updated version of a January report on documented killings in the Syrian civil war.

They say that there were 92,901 documented deaths between March 2011 and April 2013. That number is extremely high, and tragic. But the number alone is maybe not the most important thing the data is telling us.

Read the rest

Early American tombstone euphemisms for death


In 2008, Caitlin GD Hopkins collected 101 euphemisms for "died" from early American epitaphs. The epitaphs came from tombstones pre-1825, to qualify, the euphemism had to appear in the main text of the tombstone ("Here lies Fred; born 1801, laid himself to rest 1824"), not in the verse below it ("He was a nice guy"). It's quite a list:

Part 1: Died
Part 2: Departed This Life
Part 3: Deceased
Part 4: Entred Apon an Eternal Sabbath of Rest
Part 5: Fell a Victim to an Untimely Disease
Part 6: Departed This Transitory Life
Part 7: Killed by the Fall of a Tree
Part 8: Left Us
Part 9: Obit
Part 10: Slain by the Enemy
Part 11: Departed This Stage of Existence
Part 12: Went Rejoycing Out of This World
Part 13: Submiting Her Self to ye Will of God
Part 14: Fell Asleep
Part 15: Changed a Fleeting World for an Immortal Rest
Part 16: Fell Asleep in the Cradle of Death
Part 17: Fell Aslep in Jesus
Part 18: Was Still Born
Part 19: Innocently Retired
Part 20: Expired
Part 21: Perished in a Storm
Part 22: Departed from This in Hope of a Better Life
Part 23: Summoned to Appear Before His Judge
Part 24: Liv'd About 2 Hours
Part 25: Rose Upon the Horizon of Perfect Endless Day

All 101 of them are linked to photos of the headstones in the actual post:

101 Ways to Say "Died" (via Making Light)

Google adds a "dead-man's switch" -- uses cases from torture-resistance to digital wills

Google's rolled out an "Inactive Account Manager" -- a dead-man's switch for your Google accounts. If you set it, Google will watch your account for protracted inactivity. After a set period, you can tell it to either squawk ("Email Amnesty International and tell them I'm in jail," or "Email my kids and tell them I'm dead and give them instructions for probating my estate") and/or delete all your accounts. This has a lot of use-cases, from preventing your secrets from being tortured out of you (before you go to a protest, you could set your dead-man's switch to a couple hours -- if you end up in jail and out of contact, all your stuff would be deleted before you were even processed by the local law) to easing the transition of your digital "estate."

No one wants to think about their own death, but not thinking about it has a zero percent chance of preventing it. The Inactive Account Manager (great euphemism) can send your data from many Google services to your digital heirs, alert your contacts, delete the accounts, or do all or none of the above. It affects Blogger, Contacts/Circles (in Google+) Drive, Gmail, Google+ profiles, Pages and Streams, Picasa albums, Google Voice, and YouTube.

It also serves as a useful self-destruct button. Don’t want anyone watching your stupid YouTube videos after you’ve long forgotten that you had an account? Don’t want your kids to find your password notebook years after you’re gone and read your dirty chat sessions with their dad? You can have your account auto-destruct after trying to reach you using other e-mail addresses and by text message. You know, in case you just get tired of Gmail and wander off somewhere else.

Google Introduces Dead Man’s Switch For Your Accounts

Iain Banks: I'm dying of cancer, this book will be my last


Sad news: Iain M Banks, beloved author of brilliant science fiction novels and (to my taste), even better thrillers, has terminal gall bladder cancer that has spread to his liver, pancreas and lymph nodes, and is unlikely to live for more than a year (and he may live for less time). He posted the news early today, in a statement that's bravely and darkly humorous, as befits his work and his reputation:

As a result, I’ve withdrawn from all planned public engagements and I’ve asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow (sorry – but we find ghoulish humour helps). By the time this goes out we’ll be married and on a short honeymoon. We intend to spend however much quality time I have left seeing family. and relations and visiting places that have meant a lot to us. Meanwhile my heroic publishers are doing all they can to bring the publication date of my new novel forward by as much as four months, to give me a better chance of being around when it hits the shelves.

There is a possibility that it might be worth undergoing a course of chemotherapy to extend the amount of time available. However that is still something we’re balancing the pros and cons of, and is anyway out of the question until my jaundice has further, and significantly, reduced.

Lastly, I’d like to add that from my GP onwards, the professionalism of the medics involved – and the speed with which the resources of the NHS in Scotland have been deployed – has been exemplary, and the standard of care deeply impressive. We’re all just sorry the outcome hasn’t been more cheerful.

I've never (to my recollection) met Banks, but I am a huge fan of his works. As I wrote some years ago in Wired, his novel Dead Air is the first truly post-mobile-phone thriller I ever read, one where all the suspense comes from characters being in constant contact and knowing what the others are about, rather than the uncertainty of not being able to reach one another. There's a scene in that book, where someone is trapped in a closet when the killer comes home unexpectedly, and is texting to a confederate outside, that is nothing short of genius. Where the traditional mystery would have put the confederate through the stress of wondering what might be going on, in a position of total ignorance, Banks delivers a complete, minute-by-minute SMS set of updates to the confederate, and shows that knowing is infinitely more scary than ignorance, if handled by a master. Which he is.

Growing up, my whole circle of friends doted on his debut novel, The Wasp Factory, whose toe-curlingly, wonderfully macabre gross-out climax still makes me go a little sweaty-palmed when I think of it. And his novel Complicity was the book that set me on the path to giving up cigarettes.

I haven't even touched on his science fiction novels, the incredible Culture series, but they are worthy of your attention, too. In short, the field is losing one of its greats, and Scotland is losing one of its great champions for independence, and the world is losing one of its great campaigners for justice.

I wish Iain and his family a calm and loving and graceful time, and thank him sincerely for the hours of pleasure and the years of insight he's given to me and all of us.

Iain Banks diagnosed with gall bladder cancer

(Image: Iain (Menzies) Banks, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from kyz's photostream)

Honoring death by donating your body to science

i09's Annalee Newitz is donating her body to science when she dies. In a moving and fascinating article, she tells the story of her mother's death, how it led her to make this choice for herself, and what happens to bodies once they find their way into the hands of medical schools and scientists. Maggie

The scientific field with the best obituaries

Everybody dies. But naturalists — the people who study animals and plants in those species' natural environments — well, they die interestingly. Some recent causes of death in this scientific field include: Elephant charge, being eaten by caimans (assumed), and the plague. Maggie

How Doctors Die

Photo: patrick.ward04.

Ken Murray, Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at USC, writes about his experience of how his peers in medicine tend to handle end-of-life issues.

It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.

Zócalo Public Square :: How Doctors Die.

Get Your Shit Together: improve your life by planning for your death

Jeff sez, "My friend Chanel Reynolds's husband Jose Hernando was killed while cycling in 2009. She's created the Get Your Shit Together website to help you prepare for the worst now so that your family doesn't have the experience that she faced. Get Your Shit Together is a straightforward web guide to the documents, questions and details you should prepare in advance to ease the trauma on your family if the worst happens."

I really like this. I've lived through a couple sudden, unexpected deaths of friends in the past year, and it's got me thinking about how I can arrange my own affairs to ensure that things go smoothly as possible if I get hit by a bus or similar. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the things you do when you plan for your death and incapacity are really just about getting your shit together -- putting your life, your data, your commitments, and your finances in resilient and well-organized shape. If your life is pulled-together enough such that your family could run it if you disappeared, it will also be pulled-together enough that it contains as few unpleasant surprises for you lurking in its depths and snares.

Doing your will is a hassle, collecting passwords is a pain in the ass. I know, I get it. But so is going to the dentist, changing the oil in your car, and getting an annual mammogram. And, we manage to do that stuff anyway.

So, Get Your Shit Together was born. Out of scribbles in notebooks, hours and hours making phone calls and tracking stuff down. There was an unbelievable amount of help from friends. Not to mention numerous messy late nights, some very dark thoughts, and more than a handful of moments too unbearable to repeat. I (mostly) have my shit together. Now it’s your turn. I want to help.

Get Your Shit Together | Life and Death Planning: Low effort, high reward. (Thanks, Jeff!)

Awesomely weird tales of sex-ghosts


This interview with "author, photographer, and ossuary expert" Paul Koudounaris is a trove of weird stories about the things people get up to with their local mummies, haunted skulls, and other "miracle-performing" remains:

They’re not all like that. One of the more outlandish stories is about a guy who got to be called “pene grande,” which means “big dick.” He was a mummy famed in life for having a big penis. People would go down to the Palermo Catacombs and treat him as the patron saint of big cocks. Finally a newlywed woman came to see him because she was married to a guy who was not well-endowed. She took a cloth and rubbed it on the mummy’s dick, and then rubbed it on her husband’s dick. The next time she had sex with her husband, his penis seemed larger and fuller and she was about to orgasm except that at that moment she looked up and saw it was actually the ghost on top of her. Everyone thought she was crazy, but then it happened again the next time she had sex. They had to set up an exorcism for this ghost.

...They had a blacksmith make a tight-fitting sheath made of metal, and once the husband got erect the ghost came out and got caught in the codpiece. They threw holy water at him.

...That expelled the ghost from the guy’s body. So forever he had a small penis, but he was free of the ghost. As for the ghost, he gained a great following among older ladies, and eventually so many were coming to see him that they had to lock the mummy in a back room, which is where he remains to this day.

...There is an old and very weird story about a ghost of a guy who had lived in the monastery there — apparently the "devil got into him" and he masturbated and had a heart attack at the moment of ejaculation. That's why, they claim, he has that look on his face. Anyway, people said his ghost would visit boys who masturbated and scare them into stopping. One boy didn't really believe this, though, and dared the ghost to appear while he was masturbating. When the ghost showed up, he apparently grabbed the boy by the cock and squeezed him so hard that the boy passed out, and while he wasn't exactly castrated, he was rendered sterile for life.

...There’s a really bizarre story from the 20th century, about a guy who had severe diarrhea and chronic flatulence. He stole a skull and started saying prayers to St. Roch and St. Sebastian, the patron saints of plague and suffering, and also shitting on the skull daily. He had a theory that by crapping on the skull he could switch intestines with the body the skull had been attached to. The ghost kept warning him, quit shitting on my skull. But he kept at it and he succeeded in transferring his intestinal problems to the ghost. The problem was that the ghost had died of testicular cancer, and in return he gave that to the guy. That’s how he died. One of the dangers of necromancy is you don’t really know who’s on the other side or what they’re going to give you in return.

Bones, Ghosts, and Paul Koudounaris [Molly Langmuir/The Hairpin] (via JWZ)