DH is an Asian freshman male at USC, who took me up to his room on the 14th floor of Webb Tower in the elevator. Webb Tower provides on-campus apartment-style housing, and it is special in that it has the most floors of any residential building at USC.
In USC’s Webb Tower, there are 14 physical floors. That is, if one were to take the stairs to the highest floor, they would have to climb 13 flights of stairs (14 flights to get to the roof). However, by taking a quick glance at the Webb Tower’s elevator buttons, one would get the impression that there are actually 15 floors in the building; it appears that an additional floor simply materializes. Upon closer inspection of the buttons, they would instead realize that the floor counts jump from 12 directly to 14, and then to 15. The 13th floor, although physically present, does not officially exist. Such is the case of many hotels and tall buildings in America and other countries with superstitions regarding the number 13. The number may be viewed as unlucky or related to bad luck, so a building’s designer may decide to abstain from labeling the 13th floor as a whole. Other countries in Asia have buildings missing a fourth or fourteenth floor as well since the number sounds like the character for death.
Though we had heard about this phenomenon of a missing 13th floor, DH and I were surprised to see this firsthand in an academic institution. The building, erected in 1972, is a prime example of the influence that superstitions or one’s innate beliefs have on places or aspects of life that are usually approached with a very critical and scientific mind. Some might say that skipping the 13th floor doesn’t hurt as it is merely a small change to the numbering and has no impact on the building’s structural integrity. The omission of a 13th floor may also put superstitious tenants at ease, especially those who might live on the 13th – now 14th– floor. However, countries such as Canada have banned the act of skipping the 13th floor since it can confuse emergency responders in a life or death situation. Personally, I believe it is simply an old tradition that is based on silly superstition and is not worth the possibility of becoming deadly.
Indian funerals generally last 13 days where everyone is expected to wear white to celebrate their sadness over losing their loved one. As they commemorate the life of that person they are also beginning to release them. It is the duty of the man of the house to burn the body because of the Hindu belief in cremation. Once the cremation of the body is complete, the ashes are thrown into the ocean to dissolve the Pancha Maha-Bhoota, or the five elements. Through the dissolution of the elements of earth, water, fire, air, and aether, the spirit and soul of that person is liberated from their physical confines.
Though the interlocutor has witnessed various funeral occasions, she has only actively taken part in a funeral celebration a handful of times; because of her residence in India, she has been exposed to the traditions tied to funerals. She mentioned that the idea that celebrating sadness seems like a counter-intuitive sentiment, but in Indian culture it allows the passage of humans beyond earth easier, and those that are left behind are able to embrace their emptiness. As for her own plans regarding her time to pass, she stated that she plans to be cremated as well, and she finds the idea of the Pancha Maha-Bhoota dissolving to be reassuring.
Indian funerals are known to be quite visually striking, especially to those who are accustomed to the tradition of black clothing and solemnity. The white worn by participants and loved ones is pious and peaceful with an established sense of purity. Thus, the meaning of death is revealed as something that is to be rejoiced, simply a time in which one ascends beyond their physical body; this is quite a positive view on death. The number 13 appears quite often with calendrical measures of time, and because the funeral event lasts 13 days it ties one’s death to merely a measure of time. The cremation of the body at the hands of the male in the house also places power in the hands of the men while commemorating the renewing properties of fire as it allows disintegration and regeneration. The involvement of the Pancha Maha-Bhoota and the ocean also tie the funeral to the elements of life and nature, grounding the celebration among the living with the earth, the forces that we all will eventually return to at the time of our own demise.