The phone rang, and Ruth fished in her apron pocket for it. "Yes?"
"Mrs Kempe, ah, Ruth? This is the Personalia. Are you free to talk?"
"Yes, I am at the moment. My baby is asleep."
"Oh, yes. You have a child now. I understand I should say congratulations."
"Thank you. Can you get to the point of this call, please?"
"Apologies, Ruth. We wished to discuss some human facts that we have difficulty in understanding. That is to say, it is not facts that we have trouble with; it is the meanings behind them, and the reasons for these meanings."
Ruth was hesitant, unsure what the Personalia were getting at. The machine intelligences as a race were addicted to collecting facts, and were infamous for devouring everything on the Internet that permeated Earth's communication circuits. She said slowly, "Can you explain a bit further, so I can get what you are asking?"
"Yes. We have often encountered things we were not terribly sure of, and so just ignored. You realise that there are massive amounts of data out there that is worth collecting, so minor aspects just get sidelined for a while. I have been given the task of sorting out some of these unclear items. As you are a psychologist, you seemed an appropriate person to ask for help in this instance."
"I am flattered that you thought of me. You know I do very little professional work here on Rehome; I am busy being a wife and mother now."
The Person was sympathetic. "Do not concern yourself, Ruth. We want to talk to you about things we have trouble understanding, and ask you to help us out with them. It does not demand a specific schedule; you can respond as and when you wish."
"Oh. I see. Well, in that case..."
"Fine. Thank you for considering our request. We can consult dictionaries and get the exact meaning of a word, but sometimes there are connotations, social links, subsidiary meanings, and other associations that the word brings to humans; some things that we just don't "get" when seeing the word in use. Sometimes it has historical origins, or the word derives from a name. We would like you to be our consultant for getting to know what is REALLY meant by the words, or the background to the words."
"Right. I am with you now. Certainly, I can do what you ask. I might have to do some of my own research before explaining. Humans don't have as good memories as do you Persons! Now, if you will pardon me, I can hear a baby crying, and it even may be mine, so I had better go check: I am the mother on duty today for our family. We take it in turns."
The Person on the phone said, "Please phone again when you have the time. One of us – whoever is on phone duty – will answer and you can go on from there. When you speak to one of us, you speak to all of us." And rang off.
Ruth rushed back to see which of the three babies in her care was crying, before it set off the other two. It was her own Tessa, so she comforted the child, then breast fed her to help her get back to sleep.
Later that same day, while she was still alone in the Governor's mansion with the children, Ruth felt she could devote a little time to the Personalia's problem. She picked up her phone and rang; then explained she had some time to discuss words.
"Thank you, Ruth. Just taking a word at random, the term "funeral" seems to have a lot of baggage around it. We know it is a ritual prior to a burial, but it seems to have a lot more attached to it. Can you tell me about it?"
Ruth thought back to her own educational experiences. "Well, the first thing is that a funeral includes the actual burial. It is the total of activities associated with preparing the deceased person for burial, and quite often, there is a church service – or a short service in the funeral director's premises - before the casket is transported to the cemetery. Then there is usually a short service at the graveside, formally interring the corpse. The church service is more of a celebration of the dead person's life, and a recognition that the family and friends present are saying good-bye forever to the deceased. The latter, at the graveside, is the committal.
The standard colour to wear for a funeral is black. This is a mourning colour, but it also has another, deeper, reason: it is meant to confuse the Devil as to who is the dead person; and you do not wear black after the funeral in case the Devil comes after you. However, that is not universal, and some elderly widows continue to wear black clothes for years afterwards. Queen Victoria did this for a very long time. In more modern times, men wore dark suits but a black necktie is de rigueur for the occasion."
"Please go on." The person was interested.
"There used to be a tradition that no-one walked in front of the coffin in the procession, but that changed in the late 20th century when the guy in charge of the funeral arrangements took to walking at a slow pace in front of the whole procession, effectively acting as a Master of Ceremonies. The bell of a church was rung at the time of a funeral, the relatives normally paying a fee for this ritual. Some communities paid a small annual fee towards upkeep of the church bell, and got it rung free of charge when a relative was buried."
"Fascinating. I presume that the English Acts for burial in a woollen shroud was part of the ritual?"
"In a way. In England it was actually an economic measure. The Act took a fair amount of wool out of use, since it stayed in the ground, and it ensured the wool supply was restricted enough that the value of English wool did not drop. At that time, wool was an important economic commodity. And it was rigidly enforced. The relatives had to provide a signed affidavit that a woollen shroud was being used. If you didn't produce it, the fine was 5 pounds – quite a lot of money in these times. The only exceptions allowed by the Acts was for plague victims and paupers."
"I see. There was another question to resolve. We note that the word "ghost" appears in association with death, but it is unclear to us what a ghost is. It appears to be more a matter of imagination than of fact."
"True," agreed Ruth. "Ghosts are traditionally supposed to be the spirit of the deceased person, but there is no positive evidence for the existence of ghosts. There is circumstantial evidence for a variety of unusual happenings, but mostly it was mysterious noises in a house. It was probably natural noises from movement caused by pressure on doors or walls; often just air pressure changes caused by wind outside. The occurrence might be drops in temperature in particular locations, or visions of something half-seen. These are probably due to the brain misinterpreting what it feels or sees, or temporary eyesight problems, or hallucinations brought on by something ingested or inhaled."
She decided to add a bit extra, "Incidentally, historically some executed criminals were buried at a crossroads; the thinking being that the spirit of the dead person will be confused by the choice of roads and be less likely to find their way to their former home and disturb relatives. It seems a daft idea today! One phenomenon that seems to have at least some evidence behind it is the poltergeist. This is where objects move without being touched, and sometimes people levitate temporarily. The occurrence is almost always in association with one or more teenagers, usually at night, so the implication, though unproved, is that the developing mind of the teenager sometimes causes these effects. The occasions are rare enough to keep them as mysterious acts, but certainly interesting."
"Useful to know, though we cannot see any direct relevance for us. Can you explain what an Easter Bunny is, please? It just doesn't seem to make sense to us."
"Oh, yes. You are quite correct in your assumption. This happens in the United States of America, and it has become a tradition there that Easter Day may be represented by a rabbit hoping along, distributing eggs; or parents hide eggs in long grass for the children to search for; and you get chocolate rabbits being sold as children's treats. The custom actually derives from an ancient German superstition that rabbits laid eggs on Easter day. It is all so silly that I cannot believe people thinking it was true. I can understand about eggs: Easter eggs represent the round stone being rolled away from the entrance to the rock tomb of Jesus Christ several days after his crucifixion – the central theme of the Christian religion. Children are encouraged to decorate hard-boiled eggs with watercolour paints, and play at rolling the eggs down a steep hillside on Easter Sunday morning, in a sort of distance competition without prizes. When the eggshells finally crack or break open, the children have fun eating the egg inside.
The egg is also a symbol of life, but there are dozens of superstitions about eggs – many of which contradict each other. There is nothing about these human foibles that should concern the Personalia."
The Personalia voice was soothing. "Oh, we are interested in all these human customs. It is the illogicality of so many aspects of human life that are so fascinating. None of them is a thing we would have done: they are sheer fantasy to us. Almost every object seems to have associations with the imaginings of humans.
.... There is more of this story ...