USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘dead baby’
Childhood
Customs
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Rituals, festivals, holidays

Visiting Spirits and Dead Babies

After college, my mom lived in Japan 7 years. She taught English to get by and apprenticed as a potter to gain experience. Growing up, she told me tons and tons of stories from her time there. She’d speak fondly of their unusual ceremonies and traditions, and how, by the end of it, her host families said she was so in tune with the culture, that if they closed their eyes, they couldn’t tell she was a foreigner.

Driving home from lunch one sunny afternoon, I ask her and my dad if they have any stories about the inexplicable that I could use for my folklore project. My mom starts:

“In Japan, it’s a uh … a worshipping of dead ancestors day in August, Oh-Bon. They put out the dead people’s – the dead grandpa, the dead grandma, they put out their favorite food, and they put out chopsticks, and they will, you know, burn their favorite incense and they do all this so the dead can come and visit. They do this in their home. Every year, in August. It’s always in August. So it’s like Halloween, except it’s got a religious significance. It’s when the dead come back. They have festivals in town too, Oh-Bon-Matsi.

“It was a festival for dead children. And there was a river running through the town. Not dead babies but dead children. And, they… But. You know lanterns with lights in them? They’d float these lanterns with lights in them down the river and it was just gorgeous. Each lantern represented a dead child and they had this beautiful eerie music, just vocalizations for the occasion. Traditional Japanese instruments too. And incense burning. It was a very volcanic, sort of lunarscape in the far north. I can’t remember the name of the… the far north of Honshu. So you can look up ‘dead baby festival Honshu’ and figure it out.”

This is a very comforting view of the afterlife. It’s as if death is not the end, but merely a move to a different city. Growing up, she imparted this same sense of the dead on me. She’d always tell me not to fear death or the presence of ghosts, but to welcome them, as they were once in our shoes and only wanted to visit. The dead baby festival further illustrates their benevolent view of death. In America, when a child dies, we mourn and often times never speak of it. In Japan, it is tragic, however they still take time to celebrate their lives. No matter if that life was only for an instant.

 

Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Pregnant Woman Ghost

Informant Background: The informant is a student in Los Angeles. His family is originally from Indonesia. His parents moved to the United States and they now live in New Orleans. He speaks only English but he said his family still practice many Indonesian traditions especially folk-beliefs. He travels back once in a while to Indonesia to visit his relatives.

 

Okay, so there is this woman who was pregnant but she wasn’t married…she doesn’t have family or relatives…then when she was giving birth to her baby she died ‘cause the baby somehow came out of her back. …And then she became a ghost who looks like a woman but she has this bleeding hole in her stomach. She would appear with long black hair over her face while holding her dead baby …you know like those Asians ghost you see in movies where it’s like a girl with super long drapy hair in front of their face.

The informant heard about this story through his relatives in Indonesia. He is not quite sure what situation the ghost would appear but he said that she is one of the well known characters in Indonesia traditions.

 

 

I think this ghost story shows the improper ritual for two of life’s most celebrated moment: birth and death. The spirits of the mother and child transform into ghosts because they did not get a proper burial. It is also similar to other ghost stories where the ghost is created because the person died too young, in this case both of them.

The hole is a reflection the improper birth and death of both mother and child: the mother who died trying to give birth and the child who died before even being born. Souls or spirits can become ghost because of improper death or death rituals. Similar to other origin of ghost instead of being released into heaven the spirit stays on earth looking for family and relative for closure. It was both unconventional birth and death that leads to the belief of this ghost.

The absence of a proper burial is evident to the lack of family. The woman was pregnant without a husband, which is deemed unconventional and unacceptable by many societies. With no family she had no one to give her a proper funeral. Her ghost, in my opinion, is then her spirit that lingers around looking for family to give her closure.

I think this story could also be an indirect way to teach girls the consequences of going against traditions. Since the woman in the story did not have a proper wedding, she then was not able to give birth properly: going against tradition in this case not only lead to her death but an unsatisfying afterlife.

Humor

Dead Baby Joke

Q: What do you get when you stab a baby?

A: An Erection.

 

While this joke is gruesome and terrible in every conceivable way, it is my informant’s absolute favorite joke.  He first heard it from one of his friends in high school.  My informant had just told a sexist joke about Helen Keller not being able to drive well because she was a woman. His friend sneered and replied, “You think that joke is bad?”  Then, he continued to tell my informant this joke.

My informant explained that when the question was asked, all he could think of was how terrible it sounded to stab an infant.  Before he could even begin to construct a reasonable response, his friend delivered the punch line.  Of course, such an awful and perverse response is completely unexpected.  My informant “nearly died” from laughter and claims to have never laughed as hard since.

Of course, no one in their right mind would stab a baby.  Also, only the most indecent of all people could receive enough satisfaction from such an act to sexually arouse themselves.  However, in the context of the joke, it makes sense and is humorous (to some) to think that someone would suggest that anyone would feel that way.

The joke works like many others because it delivers an appropriate incongruity. It’s an incongruity because no one expects the answer they receive, and appropriate because it’s funny to think the joke-teller could be that disturbed.  But they’re not, so it’s humorous.  So, in this case, we’re presented with an inappropriate appropriate incongruity.  This joke belongs to a series of similar, equally gruesome ‘dead baby jokes’ that are shared between my informant and his close friends from high school.

general
Humor

Dead Baby Joke

“SID is really sudden infant death. My friend is an EMT technician and called SID babies “sorry its dead sir” at least that’s what you say to the parents… Awful joke.  Heard from Doug the EMT guy. He is a blunt person.”

The informant thinks that this reflects the EMT attitude toward the situation.  She thinks that it’s such a bad situation that you must make light of it. The EMT friend does have a son so he wouldn’t find it amusing if it happened to him.

I agree with my informant’s analysis.  Clearly the EMT people are exposed to lots of horrible situations and the only way to cope with sadness is with humor.  I do not believe the EMTs are mean people for making the joke, they just make the joke to keep their spirits up.

general
Humor

Joke

“What’s worse than a dead baby?

…a pile of dead babies”

“What’s worst than a pile of dead babies?

…a live one on the bottom”

“What’s worse than a live one on the bottom?

…the live one on the bottom eating his way out.”

“What’s worse than eating his way out?

…going back for seconds.”

After the last line, and in response to the wide-eyed, open-jawed expression of sheer shock upon my face, the informant closed by saying, “and that’s the joke.”  The informant confessed that the audience for whom he would perform this joke, or anyone with whom he would share it was a folk group he defined very precisely as “only people who I know wouldn’t be utterly offended.”  The informant explained that he could not remember where he originally heard the joke, but answered generally with a shrug of his shoulders, “friends?”

The “Dead Baby Joke” is not a recent phenomena, in fact Alan Dundes wrote an entire article on their prevalence among teenage boys in the ‘60s and ‘70s (Dundes, 1979).  But as with many other things, there has been a recent resurgence in their popularity among a particular with the internet as such a readily available source of exchange.   Naturally, there are webpages upon webpages, exclusively dedicated to them– a google search brings over sixteen hundred hits.  There are forums of internet cult groups who do nothing but share, discuss and create this genre of humor.  The informant seemed to believe that the dead baby joke was a new and budding genre that grew in direct relation with its internet popularity— it is quite likely he never would have been apart of this folk group should it not have been for the internet.

This joke does not have a punch line.  There series of question seems to set up an incongruity without anything incongruous.  The incongruity comes from the absurdity of the question.  The listener is left to expect some kind of clever pun, or play on words that he or she perhaps did not foresee, but in the end the answers end up being a perfectly logical, sequence—which is completely unexpected.  It was for this reason that the informant felt the need to confirm to me that the joke was over.  Ultimately, there was no joke, but the absolutely shocking nature of the degree of ridiculousness creates such a sense of disbelief in the audience that a “joke” is effectively created.  I believe the informant’s summarized his own, similar analysis by telling me, “people will most likely think [dead baby jokes] are completely unfunny.  But I think they’re funny.  They’re just so grotesque and over the top that its beyond reality! So all that’s left is it has to be funny!”

Annotation: An pre-internet age analysis of the Dead Baby Joke can be found in the following article:

The Dead Baby Joke Cycle

Alan Dundes

Western Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 3. (Jul., 1979), pp. 145-157.

Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0043-373X%28197907%2938%3A3%3C145%3ATDBJC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-X

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