Death in writing: last rites

Continuing my series of posts about character death, I’ll share my thoughts about burial customs – they are something that can show more about the (fictional) culture, their beliefs and traditions.

While death is almost inevitable in writing, not everyone will venture into what happens after. Sometimes, the story simply doesn’t give it a chance. Sometimes, it’d only be after the end and thus of little relevance. The reasons might be many. Yet, it’s something that has its place.

Consistency first

Burial customs are something that shows more about the (fictional) culture and their beliefs. Hence, the most important thing to remeber is to keep it consistent with how they are set up and what they believe in. If such a scene is in contradiction to everything else shown so far about the culture, the readers will notice it – and at least some will point it out in their reviews and/or ratings.

Inspiration: cultures of the world

It might be helpful to look at the various cultures in Earth’s present and past to see how the last rites were approached over time. Several aspects to consider are:

  • Are all people treated equally?
  • What is the burial method?
  • Why is that method chosen?
  • Who attends the funeral?
  • What does the culture believe in?
  • Is reincarnation part of their belief?
  • In case of fiction: is reincarnation and/or ressurection possible?

All of that has some level of impact – if a culture believes that the body is vital for reincarnation and needs to stay in one piece, they’ll not favor cremation. If they see their rulers as extension of god’s will or an incarnation of the god (such as pharaohs in ancient Egypt), they’ll get a different treatment than the rest of the populace.

The methods

Due to the properties of the remains, there are three main methods: cremation, whole-body burial, and preservation. Of course, there might be other (sometimes disgusting) methods present, such as cannibalism. Preservation (most often in some form of mummification) is often reserved for the highest castes, leaving burial and cremation as the two most dominant.

The beliefs

This gets us to how the beliefs impact the choice. Even two shamanistic cultures might have a different approach: one might believe the body will return to the earth the best when it’s cremated and the ashes scattered, other might believe the best way is to bury it whole (possibly naked) and let the nature reclaim it over time.

There might be other details, such as facing the body head-first towards where they believe the gods reside or a specific time of day when the funeral should take part. Likewise, who is present and who leads the funeral rites is affected by the beliefs and culture.

Beliefs also affect the length of the funeral: cultures skeptical about afterlife might favor short funerals where the main point is to make peace with their loss while cultures believing in the afterlife or reincarnation are likely to beseech their deities for the deceased’s favorable passing on to the next stage.

Another cultural trait might be the attire: while dark colors are prevalent in Western societies, forging a fictional society gives the option to choose a different way. Shamanistic cultures favoring open-field funeral pyre might be topless with symbols drawn on their bodies. Funeral procession of a sovereign might include displays of wealth and/or heraldry.

Dishonorable death

Some cultures might see some ways to death as dishonorable and thus unworthy of a proper burial and/or resting place. People comitting suicide in Christian culture were buried outside of the cemetery’s walls and without the ceremony due to the beliefs, even though it carried hygiene risks.

Nothing remains

Another factor affecting the usual final farewell are conditions when there’s no body to bury. The reasons might wary from somewhat natural causes (drowning in muddy lake might make it impossible to retrieve the body), workplace accidents (falling into a vat of molten steel will not leave anything behind), or a murderer destroying the victim’s body. Different culture might approach that differently.

Untraditional last wish

The present times offer some untraditional methods – donating your body to science, using high presure to turn the ashes into a diamond (and thus ring), scattering the ashes (if the local law allows it), and maybe more. If the character had some specific approach to their life and favoring a special approach would make sense, it’s an option to explore.

The attendees

Another factor to consider is who attends the funeral. In case of common folk, it’s likely to include only friends and family. In case of celebrities or sovereigns, some degree of publicity is possible. Again, all of this should be considered with regards to the culture (whether fictional, historical, or real).

The hand of science

Another aspect to consider (which applies more to present times and the future) might be the need to examine the body before burial: someone murdered will be examined for possible sources of death (sharp instruments, blunt instruments, poison traces, ballistic damage,…) while victims of disease will be examined especially if the disease itself is rare or exotic. This might collide with the usual plans for the last rites as the body can’t be buried before the examination is concluded (and thus might delay the time of burial beyond what is usual).

So, this is what I wanted to share for today. As usual, I’ll welcome comments on the matter.

Death in writing mini-series:
Intriduction (7.7.) – Impact on story (14.7.) – Emotions (21.7.) – Death sentence (28.7.) – Last rites (4.8.) – Sacrifice (11.8.) – Cheating death (18.8.)

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