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Long story short: a cultural tradition of this (late medieval/early renaissance-ish) civilization is to put their deceased in a casket/boat/raft, and float them out into the ocean. Their belief is that they're sending their loved ones off to the afterlife, and at some point they float into the supernatural dimension where they wake up and join the afterlife. My idea is something along the lines of they get pulled into a current that eventually drops them off in a small cove or something far away. However, there's some things that still need develop. The cove needs to be well hidden, both from sailors along the coast and anyone who lives on the land. It should also securely collect nearly all the things that float downstream, because it wouldn't do to have random bodies floating around the ocean. So the question is, what is this "cove" like? How does the current work and how strong does it need to be? What material should the bodies be placed in? How plausible is this concept?

This idea is pretty flexible. There's not much geography planned for this region yet, and I can probably work with whatever you guys can suggest. Also if the cove idea doesn't seem plausible, I'm open to any other explanations (maybe they get sucked underwater and lie on the ocean floor?). Pretty much any input helps.

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  • $\begingroup$ Is there an absolute requirement / preference that it be one cove, or can it be a series of coves along a coast? $\endgroup$ Mar 10 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ it'sa very flexible idea, as long as it serves its purpose without drawing attention $\endgroup$ Mar 10 at 21:25
  • $\begingroup$ I hope you don't mind, but I've added tags to attract those with general interest in this. Please feel free to revert if you wish. $\endgroup$ Mar 10 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ A small boat drifting with the current in the open ocean won't last long. There is zero chance of having "random bodies floating around the ocean"; there is no need for the cave(s): the ocean itself and its cute sharky inhabitants will take care of cleaning up. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 10 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ Just pick a place where there is a reliable current curling out into the open ocean. The south-eastern coast of Africa, the north-eastern corner of New Zealand, the eastern coast of the Bōsō peninsula in Japan etc. Just look at a map of ocean currents and choose a location to serve as a prototype. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 10 at 22:03
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The gyre.

gyre source

https://phys.org/news/2018-01-temporary-bathtub-ocean-flotsam.html

Your dead folks stay at sea. They go around and around in their little boats. Boats from various villages all gather in the gyre. Some have been there a long time. No-one comes to the gyre because it is far out to sea. No-one comes but the dead.

The experiment conducted in the Gulf of Mexico near the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill placed hundreds of drifting sensors to observe how material moves on the ocean's surface. Rather than spread out, as current calculations would predict, many of them clumped together in a tight cluster.

"To observe floating objects spread out over a region the size of a city concentrate into a region smaller than a football stadium was just amazing," said first author Eric D'Asaro, a UW professor of oceanography. "We knew there would be some concentration, but the magnitude seen was quite stunning."

The original article with explanation is here: https://www.pnas.org/content/115/6/1162

There is one live person in the gyre with the dead. She was not as dead as people thought when they put her to sea. She is an able fisherman and has lived on fish and rain, as well as gifts put to sea with the dead folks. She is happy to see your people. She was happy with the people that were already there.

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    $\begingroup$ Looking at images of the garbage patch it almost seems like some of those old movies weren't actually exaggerating, apart from the monsters of course, there's actual islands like faux floating icebergs (though I imagine they're broken up & new ones formed by wind & wave on a regular basis?), it almost seems you could practically live there. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Mar 10 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ Has anyone studied the seabed there? organic flotsam of all sorts must have been swept there to eventually sink for millennia & I'm wondering about the ecosystem that might have developed to take advantage of that. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Mar 10 at 23:23
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    $\begingroup$ My first thoughts on answering this question was "What is the type of current that accumulates the pacific plastic garbage pile thing?" - A gyre. So. +1 $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Mar 11 at 1:05
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Simply put, without a living person actively controlling it, the boat will sooner or later either fill up with rain water or topple over due to waves.

When that happens the body is obviously taken care from scavenging sea creatures and the boat sinks.

Note that in context like oceanic atolls the sea is pretty calm within the limits of the atoll lagoon, but then gets pretty rough immediately out of it:

enter image description here

this makes venturing outside the lagoon a challenge, even more if there is nobody to control the boat.

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  • $\begingroup$ A seafaring culture would be aware that a boat eventually would fill with water or capsize. If they think the dearly departed will be in the boat more than a day or two before its "ascension", they'll probably cover the boat and/or secure the body, so that it would not be disturbed. $\endgroup$ Mar 11 at 18:02
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One species' dead bodies is .. another species' food. Seas and isles have ample number of creatures that are still being discovered today, so you can even invent a species if needed. With a late medieval/early renaissance-ish civilization, there is a good chance of highly reliable boat technology being missing, as well as the boats of the dead being cheap knockoffs that can only go short distances beyond regular vision to save on resources and get more money.

What ocean geography causes bodies to “disappear”?

Because in the ocean, the body is a rich source of food, So, you only need to provide enough time for the natural processes to happen before anyone notices them. Fortunately, the volume of sea based traffic was much lower during the late medieval era, and the number of uninhabited areas was large, so you can have your boats travel to 1) An archipelago 2) rocky beaches, or 3) An area with larger Rogue waves.

How does the current work and how strong does it need to be?

A plot armor of none of the inhabitants/sailors going in the direction of the dead to respect the dead and water house of dead can be very helpful here.

Initially, your current needs to be a moderate surface current. The design of boat should help be like a coracle, the boat should be able to float easily for some time before it goes beyond the visual range. Later, another current needs to be merging with the original so as to make it stronger. Could be like a madagascar current meeting a circumpolar antarctic current, but more localised.

maybe they get sucked underwater and lie on the ocean floor?

So, the current takes the boat to one such area, where it (boat) finally breaks down. The area should be full of species that eat the dead bodies. Could be an island of mythical Berbalangs who know how to swim short distances, or a colony of sea cucumbers that eat the dead bodies once the boat capsizes.

Regular seafarers avoid the area/current because of treacherous geography.

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Ocean currents are caused by a variety of things like planetary rotation and salinity gradients. It could be that the culture is located alongside one of the dominant paths which will carry away any free floating debris. This can be subtle enough to enable regular sailing and even swimming, with return one way being easier than the other ("Call of the Dead" as the locals might call it). You can then schedule funerals for outgoing tide to give them a push into the current. Anything that floats either on the surface or below it is suitable.

The destination can be very far away, in a sacred region where nobody is allowed to go or through some treacherous water that will sink boats (and the dead don't care about being drowned for a while). The cove can be at a bend in the current so that the floaters are thrown from it into a concavity in the shoreline that has been eroded away by the water.

There are existing well established paths that might vary with weather and season but display consistent directionality over longer periods.

There is a fun story of plastic pollution mapping these:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendly_Floatees

And even something called the global conveyor belt:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermohaline_circulation

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A couple of things immediately spring to mind.

First is that the dead float into a region of non-buoyant water. This could be caused by (for example) a thermal vent on the ocean floor that releases significant amounts of gas bubbles into the water. This lowers the density of the water. When your boats enter that region, they find themselves significantly denser than the water and rapidly sink. A structure like this would be a hazard for regular ship navigation as well. Perhaps your culture sees this oddity in the ocean as the gateway to the underworld, and all but the dead steer clear of it.

Another option is that your terrain has some seaside cliffs. In several places, those cliffs have eroded away to form deep cave systems. These caves formed a long time ago, when the sea was much shallower. Now, their openings are completely underwater at high tide but during low tide, the lip of the cave opening just barely peeks above the water line. These caves would be impossible to see while standing on the cliffs, and difficult to see while on a boat without getting dangerously close to the rocky cliffs. When your dead are set adrift, they never actually make it very far from land. After the tide drops to its lowest point and starts to come back in, the drifting dead get swept back in with the tide and get sucked into the caves just before the tide rises high enough to prevent them from drifting back out. The insides of the caves are full of debris and jagged rocks, and any rafts entering the caves quickly get smashed to bits. The remnants of the rafts will eventually get swept back out of the caves but by that time, what's left in indistinguishable from ordinary driftwood or natural marine debris.

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  • $\begingroup$ I really like these ideas, but for the first, is an underwater vent enough to keep all the dead in one place? Wouldn't they float away from the vent eventually? Also for the second, it sounds like only a few occasional boats would get swept into the cave system when the tides change, and they might drift back out to sea easily. It's crucial to the idea that all the bodies are collected and kept securely. $\endgroup$ Mar 12 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ @cassadia.68 If the dead stay in the vented area, they won't have enough buoyancy to float anywhere (like how a rock doesn't float away in normal water). Wherever the dead end up, your aquatic life will figure this out pretty fast and you'll have a healthy population of scavengers camping out in the area, waiting for their next meal to miraculously appear. $\endgroup$
    – bta
    Mar 15 at 22:48
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As pointed out by many other people, dead bodies are an ample source of food. However, while boats would capsize or sink given enough time, the tide may very well bring some boats back to the shore. The implications of this is that their loved one was rejected by the god of the afterlife or perhaps even "awakened" and used their new spirit powers to come back.

I'm no expert on tides or currents, but given that Padre Island is in the Gulf of Mexico and that currents bring things from all over said Gulf to the shore, it seems more than likely a gyre won't solve that problem. However, there is a solution you may want to consider: merpeople.

If there are furtive (but likely curious) merpeople living in the coastal areas, they will soon find the boats and realize there are bodies inside. Out of curiosity, hunger, pragmatism, or perhaps all three, they will take apart the boat (wood can be used for construction or made into weapons) and eat the bodies.

In fact, out of some desire for fairness, dying merpeople may crawl (or be deposited by friends or family) onshore and be found by the humans, who then may or may not eat them. In fact, the merpeople may even write Eat Me on them before crawling onshore (if they've learned or somehow already know the human language).

This will effectively hide (and deal with) the bodies, not to mention keep the boats from returning. In conclusion, I hope this helps!

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They get eaten

@AnshulGoyal mentioned predators but I'd like to add to that with a specific real world example that involves IRL funerary barge practices. The Ganges river is home to a very large, predatory catfish known as the goonch (Bagarius yarrelli). In India there is a tradition of putting loved ones on floating funeral pyres and sending them adrift down the Ganges. However, this causes the local goonch to start getting a taste for human flesh, and the sudden influx of nutrients into their normally nutrient-poor environment also caused them to start growing to extremely large sizes of more than two meters. The funeral barges normally break apart when burned but the goonch are big enough that a sufficiently motivated one could drag them under. Given these animals have huge mouths to suck down their prey and can swallow a small child whole, after a certain point there is going to be nothing left of a human body disposed down the river. The goonch eventually started attacking humans, and notably when this happened the people they attacked just vanished. No body was ever found.

Now, it's not a foolproof strategy for making sure people's bodies are never found. There are issues today in the Ganges where people are finding bodies that were apparently disposed of by people trying to illegally give their loved ones a river funeral. Part of this is because populations of goonch and other river predators like mugger crocodiles are getting low due to pollution in the Ganges. But out in the ocean where there are a lot more predators, especially in a setting that perhaps doesn't have as much human exploitation of the marine environment, and it would be really hard to find anything left. A good example of this are modern oceanic whitetip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus). These animals are always hungry because they spend their existence on the brink of starvation, are really curious towards new stimuli, and are known to be the number one bane of shipwreck survivors because they have no fear of humans and will eat people stranded in the ocean. Some studies have even suggested they may have even learned to follow signs of oceanic distress like boiler explosions because they've learned there's a chance for a meal. If a species like that has learned that your people are sending meat out to sea, those funeral barges are going to get torn apart and leave almost no trace the moment they sink (if the predators don't sink them beforehand).

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