Creating Fictional Funerary Customs

Today’s topic might seem somewhat morbid, but it’s one that may be important if you plan to kill off any significant characters. (Don’t worry; I’ll be balancing it out by talking about the ceremonies surrounding new births next week!) If your character dies (or is thought to die), how is that handled in your world? How does your culture view death? That’s what we’ll be getting into today.

Cultural View of Death

The first thing to determine is how your culture views death. Is death seen as an injustice, something against nature? Do they view it as being stolen away from the world or an eternal existence being cut short? Are characters viewed as being taken up by the gods when they die, for good or ill? Is death seen as honorable, whether as a whole or in certain contexts–such as through sacrifice for the character’s nation or religion? Is it seen as the natural mark of having fulfilled a life-long purpose? Does this culture have any concept of a resurrection or reincarnation after death?

Generally, this will boil down to two questions: Is death viewed as a negative, positive, or neutral occurrence? And what is believed to happen to those who die (in the immediate and in the long-term)? The answers to these two questions will influence pretty much everything else.

Another important question to ask in this context is what this culture believes about the body and soul, and how closely they’re believed to be connected–if at all. A culture that believes bodies have no purpose once the spirit leaves them will likely treat their dead very differently than a culture that believes a soul will one day return to its body or that the two are entirely inseparable (or one that doesn’t believe in souls at all).

Handling the Body

Once you’ve developed your culture’s underlying beliefs about death, you can think about how they’re likely to handle the body of one who has died. Are they likely to burn the body as an offering to gods? Bury it intact to await a later resurrection? Give it to the sea to be reclaimed? Cremate the body so that it can be divided among beloved places or loved ones?

This is a question in which the relation of body and spirit will likely be a crucial point. If bodies and souls are never separated, a mariner culture might seek to return body and soul to the sea spirits they believe in while a culture that believes in keeping the deceased with their family might cremate them and divide the ashes; in a culture that believes souls return to their bodies, bodies may be buried, mummified, or otherwise kept whole and/or preserved (whether they’re preserved or merely kept whole may depend on whether they believe the body will be reused exactly as-is or if it will be remade and glorified); a culture that believes the body serves no purpose after death because it’s been abandoned by the spirit might burn the body or otherwise “dispose of” it, or might instead preserve it in a mummified state and/or coffin for the sake of remembrance.

You might also consider what would be thought of as dishonorable ways to handle a body. Maybe that mariner culture avoids land as much as possible, and being encased in it (buried) is a means of trapping a body forever and seen as a great punishment or dishonor. Or maybe cremation is considered desecration in a culture that believes souls will one day return to their bodies (this might even lead to a belief in ghosts as the spirits that have no bodies to return to, in certain cultures). This can also lead to some significant culture clash if two neighboring cultures–or an immigrant from some other culture and the culture they live in now–have vastly different ideas of how a body should be properly respected!

Memorialization might also look different from culture to culture. Some might mark graves–whether to honor those buried or for the practical purpose of avoiding trying to bury someone else in an occupied plot–others might keep artwork of the deceased in the homes of loved ones and otherwise not mark their identities, yet others might have entire elaborate tombs or coffins–perhaps filled with their most prized possessions either to preserve them or send them along with the deceased.

Handling the Spirit

We obviously touched on this somewhat in the previous section, but your culture’s customs may have additional elements that are specifically focused on properly seeing off the spirit of the deceased. Perhaps there is a custom designed to help send the spirit off to the afterlife–or merely symbolize that journey for those still alive; perhaps there is a memorial service allowing the deceased’s loved ones a chance to say goodbye; perhaps the deceased’s spirit must be set at peace in order to keep them from haunting their loved ones or their home, so any last tasks must be completed by the deceased’s loved ones soon after their death.

In Virilia, for example, those who die are thought to join the gods in the stars. Because of this, memorial services include a lantern-release ceremony that represents the deceased’s spirit rising to join the stars.

Care of the Family

Lastly, consider the effects of a character’s death on the family left behind. Is there a time of fellowship and encouragement after funerary ceremonies? Are meals and other general needs tended to by the community for a period after a relative’s death? How are families cared for after the death of a relative? Or are they expected to simply carry on with ordinary life after the deceased has been put to rest? What additional responsibilities fall on the family of the deceased after their death–whether the deceased’s everyday work or unfinished business? Do they have any support from the community in this additional work?

Think about how widows and orphans might be taken care of after a character dies. Are widows expected to remarry (whether it’s expected to be a relative of their deceased husband or simply a new husband from elsewhere in the community)? Are orphaned children taken in by other relatives, other members of the community, or an orphanage?

There you have the most critical considerations for funerary customs if you’re intending to kill off a character (or if you just want to be prepared for the possibility if the story calls for it). Have you ever killed off a character before? What is the strongest character death you’ve seen in a book, show, movie, etc.? (Warehouse 13, for me. If you know, you know.) Comment below!

Not sure what your culture’s values are yet or how to shape them effectively so they can inform these and other customs? Check out the worldview focus questions in the resource library!

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