The Queen is Dead (What the hell do we do now?)

*I got this all written up, then realized this is the first time it’s been my privilege to post on MGC. I’d be more concerned about starting with a post on death, but for a couple things. Thing the first is that I’m rocking this uncaffeinated, and it was an early morning. Thing the second: it’s been a hell of a month, and I just don’t care. Thing the third: we’re all mad here [insert best Cheshire Cat grin]. For those as what haven’t yet met me, I’m Dave, I wear kilts and hats (and I like long walks on the beach). I’ve published a couple of things that could charitably be called urban fantasy, though one is most definitely rural, and the other is closer to nightmare than any fantasy of mine.*

On Valentine’s Day, my grandfather died. I’ve written about that (and some tangentially related notions) over at According To Hoyt. This post has its genesis in an addendum I wrote for that. I got it typed up all purty, and then WordPress ATE IT. *grumblegrowlsnort* The All-Devouring-Technobeast aside, this seems to be a season of death among us. The day Mrs. Dave and I left Nevada, my grandmother had a heart attack. Transport to the hospital was arranged, angioplasty was performed and stents installed, and Mor Mor was improving. Looking forward to discharge and getting on with her life. Then a week after the cardiac episode, she suffered a massive stroke that affected her brain stem, and died that afternoon.

With my grandfather, he’d been dying for decades. With Mor Mor, we had not an inkling, and while Mor Far was often the driving force of the greater Snow clan, she was our heart. On the Day, a significant – and surprising – percentage of the hospital staff filtered through her room. They expressed shock and dismay. Many said that she was their favorite (a sentiment echoed by most of her friends and social circle) and railed against the unfairness of it. “But I just saw her this morning!” “She was getting better!”

Personally, I’ve “enjoyed” dashed hopes and ruined expectations. My mother and her sisters are in shock, and my father and his fellow brothers-in-law are doing little better. I’ve had little chance to communicate with my cousins, but I don’t expect they’re doing any better than I am, and a few no doubt worse. As I said, Mor Mor was the glue that held us together as a family.

The weekend was, as such things go, excellent. My father, the Irreverend, spoke at the memorial service, while my uncle, Herr Doktor, spoke at the graveside. Both were excellent, and among the best such I’ve heard. Having sat through umpteen million (or so) sermons in my life, that’s pretty good. Much food and drink were consumed. My gin/tonics went over nearly as well as the Old Fashioneds from the previous endeavor. Which means I’ll need to work up a new cocktail for next time. Maybe Vesper Martinis. I enjoyed the one of those I’ve had, but then, that was an odd night.

We did all the things our family does, but everything was more raw. Emotions were much closer to the surface. Which, for one who habitually plays things very close to the proverbial vest, was more than a little exhausting.
Contrary to my own personal experience, the sun was shining over the little veterans cemetery at Fernley, NV. Which is to say, I saw the colors, but everything seemed flat and grey. The usual phrase – celebration of life (and more on that later) – felt likewise flat. Oh, we laughed, and we cried. We felt all the feels, and are still doing so. We divided up the stuffs: tokens of hers that reminded us of what she meant, and of who she was. Details of her life that had passed into clan lore were brought up for public mastication, and our souls were fed by it.

As mentioned above, everybody was shocked. The whole clan. Many still are, all things considered. We’re trying to get on with life, but it’s all still too close. One of those iconic moments happened … Saturday, I think. Someone asked a question about a preference, and the response was, “we’ll just ask Mor Mor . . .”
What does this have to do with writing? Absolutely nothing! (Not even a very tasty red snapper.) I tell a lie. Death is a thing in fiction, and just as important (at least to the writer) to get right. Plus, I’m a writer, so I use the words when I need to deal with a thing that is all uncomfortable.

I mentioned in The King Is Dead… that we do death poorly in this country, and in the Western World in general. Our societal worship of youth and beauty mitigates against it, and the American drive toward the John Wayne ideal and stoic, rugged individualism likewise mitigates against public displays of grief. At least beyond the single, manly tear glistening on the rough-weathered cheek.
As writers, we deal a lot in death. Our characters die, and depending on (sub)genre, by windrows. Hero-ing isn’t exactly a profession with a great retirement package. And one thing that gets ignored (a lot) are a society’s funeral traditions. Unless your characters subscribe to the Indiana Jones Method of Cultural Preservation, of course. In which case, it’s more a matter of figuring out if the God-Empress of the Third Belkrazhian Despotism was more partial to spinning blades or pressurized high-salt liquid spray for the booby traps littering Her Cosmic Munificence’s long-forgotten and just rediscovered mausoleum. Or was it micro-antimatter explosives? The third moon of Tranthor will never be the same.

I’ve seen it argued that one of the hallmarks of civilization (or at least of burgeoning humane-ness among the squalling mass of humanity) is rituals for caring for our dead. Whether the thing to do is a parade through town in Sunday best with a jazz band, or ritual cleansing of the home and immolation, or even the burning of a longboat heavy-laden with looted treasures and unwilling thralls (my favorite),

Depending on the cultural background, these rituals may be more about publicly honoring the dead than they are about comforting the newly bereaved. It’s hard to say, and sociology isn’t necessarily the most robust of sciences.
When designing a world and its attendant civilizations, we as writers need to have more than a passing familiarity with the funerary rites of our world, and of history. If only so our characters react appropriately to the messiness we ladle on them. More than that, unquestioned (except by us) assumptions will influence personal conflicts. Suppose the romantic couple come from vastly different backgrounds. (Pfff, like that ever happens.) Their friend dies of the grand vizier’s poison. She prepares to immolate him, but her beloved is stunned by this sacrilege.

Much is going to be framed by religion, and just as much by environment. What stance do People X have on the concept of the soul? Does the anima become one with the spirit of the universe immediately upon death? What happens if a Valkyrie gets sidetracked by one of Loki’s endless machinations before she scoops up the newly incorporeal warrior? Does Hel get to snag him if she may? What is the important part of the individual to a god, anyway? As for environment, can people living on a generation ship afford to get rid of that much fertilizer? Is it right to fire off Dad’s mortal remains into the system primary, when the hydroponics section hasn’t had a boost in a while? What about a society living in primitive conditions in a jungle?

These questions – and more – are going to influence the way your peoples deal with the shock of death. What about the ceremony is going to comfort the grieving widow? Is said widow even allowed to mourn in a public manner? What if that manner involves her own immolation?

In a similar vein, what about legal considerations? Is it legal for a corpse to be ritually cannibalized? What’s involved in the simple transport of a body from one municipality to another? And then there’s everybody’s favorite: inheritance. Who gets what? Are the wishes of the decedent to be honored, or is it what gets written down and witnessed. Does the new clan leader dispose of the deceased belongings? Does it go to the lawyers, and how much of a cut does the state get for the privilege of letting the guest of honor die with dignity?

The answers to any and all of these questions could be fraught (FRAUGHT, I say) with potential conflict which you may inflict upon your characters. Any number of stories begin with odd bequests from heretofore unknown family members (incidentally, Dad, I’m still waiting to be told about our wealthy and childless relatives). Good, old Uncle Bartholomew died? That’s terrible! And he left me that bizarre set of books that looked like they’d been bound by a madman? What a dear! I shall have to stay up late reading them. On a full moon. When the stars are aligned.

For that matter, a death can be a complication. What do you mean I have to travel across the country for Aunt Millicent’s funeral? Don’t you know that if I give up the chase now, Doctor Calipergum will reach the Tomb of the Sun God first? My reputation will be ruined! And, worse, he’ll publish first!
These examples are relatively lighthearted, but how we care for our dead matters, if only (and I’m not convinced it’s only) because it reflects well or poorly on us. As people, we need to be able to confront death. As writers, we need to portray it in believable ways, and our characters need to react well (for a given value thereof: react believably, whether with great distress or great stoicism is up to them, and you) or at least appropriately.

21 comments

  1. What I want is a good contractor who can take care of all the bodies when the latest James Bond wannabe breaks in and starts slaughtering my minions. It’s hard enough to find good help these days without the Forces of Justice swooping in all the time to machine gun ’em all.

    1. It’s the regulations, really. Or rather, getting around them. You have to build up a network, which usually requires putting down roots. So you’re paying off the local law enforcement, the politicians, the medical examiner (NB: ALWAYS PAY OFF THE CORONER), and then you have to worry about state AND federal levels (politicians are easier, as always) when you need to transport across jurisdictional lines. And THEN you start facing record-keeping issues. Issues? Hell, we don’t have issues; we have entire VOLUMES. Heaven help you if you have to deal with unions. Not to mention the competition. It’s killer.

      1. See, this is why it is worth it, long term, to invest in the alligator moat/sarlaac pit/dungeon monster add-on package. It isn’t really about defense against heroes so much as providing…(thumbs through manual of Preferred PC Terminology) “a vibrant and diverse ecosystem”. Oh, and this one, “on-site broad spectrum recycling”. The trick is to hire contractors to do the actual body collection. Using minions can cause the brighter ones to ask questions about the retirement plan and if anyone lived to see it.

        1. It’s a fine line to ride, really. You need minions smart enough to carry out your orders, but dumb enough not to question them. The military gets all the really good ones, so you’re left with the scrapings from fast food franchises, people sick of retail and those willing to not ask questions. The trouble with that last is the few with initiative. Always dangerous, that.

          1. And then there is the fact that most times most of those minions are not really evil, but just poor sods trying to make a living, or even poor sods who had no choice because they were forced into the position, one way or another (maybe they have family living in the domain of the Evil Overlord, and the best way to ensure their safety and well being is to serve said Overlord seemingly willingly and with great enthusiasm).

            It is a bit odd they so rarely betray the Evil Overlord. Abandon him, yes, once his downfall seems imminent, but one would think betrayals might happen a bit more often too.

            Of course it’s more fun for the hero when the one who does the betraying is the beautiful daughter or sexy arm decoration of the Overlord, not some random grunt from his throne room guard (let’s see, maybe the grunt’s sick daughter did not get the treatment the Overlord had promised, after all. Or he had been serving only because she was getting it, but then she died anyway and he finally felt free to follow his better judgement. Everybody knows the Overlords always lose against the hero with a good heart so it might be deemed wise to jump the ship while one still can).

          1. I’m considering either the Idaho side of the Grand Tetons, or the [redacted] River Valley in far western [redacted]. The second location has good water, doesn’t get as many blizzards, and is far enough from “civilization” that I don’t have to worry about the random do-gooder ringing the doorbell. The Tetons have better scenery, but those darn climbers and skiiers!

            1. Good for experimental subjects though. On that note, it is important to invest in sufficient sedatives to keep these new subjects sleeping long enough to do a thorough background check. Can’t have vengeful former spec-ops types showing up and ruining things.

  2. For the writer, funeral feasts are a good time to have the murderer try for a second victom. Or the police to arrest him. Or both. I personally thought my magic and laser fight was a classy sendoff for the murdered prince. Not that he was around to appreciate it.

  3. In something I’ve been working on lately I start off by killing about 200 soldiers. I hope that I’ve been believable with how that is dealt with. What I intended was to show was that both cultures involved, one military and one colonial, dealt with death in elaborate but very different ways. The (now stranded) foot soldiers’ extensive private ceremonies assume that any bodies have been taken away somewhere and probably cremated as they’re never given the bodies and generally aren’t in a “place” where it makes sense to bury anyone. The colonial culture builds elaborate and heavy tombs to protect the dead from the large and hungry predators. Consequently, those responsible for the deaths, when they are hung, are left for the birds and beasts.

    I hadn’t really been planning for the story to be about funeral traditions but I had too many bodies to just go with “that was taken care of when you weren’t looking.” And the way it’s turning out, the monument tomb that the colonials build has a psychological effect on the loyalty of the stranded soldiers. It’s not the only thing that ties them to their new home, but it’s certainly a significant element.

  4. I’ve been dealing with death too.
    It has almost certainly affected my writing, if only because the process took months and interrupted the routine I’d finally achieved regarding how often I wrote, how much time I could (and should) spend at the keyboard. Add in the effect caused by bringing knowledge of your own mortality to the fore and I’m certain that I write differently.
    Attitudes change, ‘important’ things become less important. Trivial, even, in the face of death. So it’s been with me.
    But it’s coming to a close. I hired a man this morning to plant a tree, and I wrote an essay and posted it on my blog (jlknapp505.com). When everything’s finally complete I may post the essay on my FB page or just post a link where those who want to can go read the essay.
    I won’t be in condition to speak at the time, so I wrote ahead. Someone else can read it, or I’ll just pass around copies.
    I think writers deal with death and grief in a way that non-writers can never know.

  5. Funerals can be good or bad depending on who else is there. If they are people who like you, and support you, it can perhaps be a comforting ritual. If most of the others else present are either indifferent or downright hostile it’s nothing but. People can love the same person while hating each others’ guts, and way too often they will then also see that love as a reason for competition (for which there rarely is any real reason, unless we are talking about sexual love and potential marriage in which case there are moral grounds for choosing one over the other most people are quite capable of loving several different individuals at the same time) and make every effort to shut out the ones they see as their rivals, whether they really are or not, and never mind the bind that put the poor sod who ended in the middle during his lifetime so his death is most likely not going to change anything. It will probably just make it worse.

    One of the worms death can bring out is also old rivalries, and old fights. This has not happened to me but I’ve seen it happen to others way too often. Siblings who until then seemed to be getting along just fine, and then stop talking to each other because they can’t decide which one gets what treasured memento, or figure the other got more than she did and that’s just wrong! – and suddenly every little insult and all the fights they had as children and teenagers come bubbling up in their memories, and in the worst case the end result may be a permanent breach.

  6. One thing about being in aviation for a living, sooner or later someone you know will die in a crash. The world is just that small, especially if you work in the low and slow end of the field (aerial applications, firefighting, and aerobatics in my case). What’s interesting is that different airports and communities have their own “flavors” of memorials, from everyone attending rosary and mass; to fly-in wakes that would make the Irish envious; to showing up and cleaning out the hangar and making a list of everything, plus prices we’d pay, so the widower didn’t have to deal with it (we’d checked with him in advance). All usually including a dose of “what the f–k did he do wrong? What was he thinking when he tried that?” and often “I found eight errors in the story in the paper. How many’d you find?” The rituals may look irreverent and crude to outsiders, but they make sense to those on the inside.

  7. Dealing with death is in fiction is an interesting experience as an author, especially if your character has an experience similar to one that you’ve dealt with. In one of my currents WiPs, my MC loses his father suddenly near water. I lost my father suddenly as well, to drowning.

    Writing that screen screwed me up but it helped too. There was a lot there that I had just packed away and not dealt with. In my story the MC gets his revenge (sort of and stupidly) on the water as well. It would be eerie how much his reaction mirrors then one I wish I had if I hadn’t written it myself.

    I’m still working on doing a memorial service, both for the purposes of character development and moving the plot forward, but it’s proven to be a bit tougher. I’m sure I’ll get something on the page soon, but damn. It’s not easy.

    1. Apparently the actor who played Inego Montoya in Princess Bride had lost his father to cancer right before the movie was made. He said that every time he said, “You killed my father, prepare to die.” he was thinking of his father. This made his performance that much more powerful.

  8. This has indeed been a tough year for your clan. Please accept my condolences for your beloved Mor Mor. We have had the passing of part of our clan recently, and it is a real shock when someone goes into the hospital to ‘get better’ and doesn’t come out.

    We are all, the lucky ones, getting older each day. This must affect our writing. It also affects our movie viewing: I can’t stand to watch movies in which hordes of minions get mown down – and nobody even blinks. Each one of those guys (usually men) had a life, and a mother, and most of them are young and healthy. Okay, so they’ve been making bad choices for a while – witness their status as minions – but the slaughter is wholesale, unnecessary, and turns my stomach. I even had those thought about the orcs in LOTR – but then it turned out they were hatched, rather than birthed – but the question still remains. Obviously Tolkien wasn’t in charge of the children.

    The movies are aimed at the young males (who drag along the young females) – and most of them are basically free of responsibilities to anyone except themselves, so they can dream that the movie characters are themselves. At that age I was in grad school, so I never got to have the ‘fun’ implied – I had homework and research and …

    But it makes you think. How to incorporate what you are, what you live, into your books, and do it well enough to possibly serve someone as a lifeline some day.

    1. 1. Once you come into existence as part of a society of magically genetically-altered, mind-controlled elves who’ve been twisted to dislike and fear almost everything related to your ultimate elvish origins, life is kinda gonna suck. OTOH, you do get to talk to wargs, so you have a few elvish orcish animal companions.

      2. Either orcs and goblins are elves who apparently never even get to go to the Halls of Mandos because Morgoth’s original spells were just that powerful; or the Halls of Mandos include some pretty jacked-up elves waiting for reincarnation. Nightmare fuel either way.

      3. Actually, The Hobbit mentions a fair number of goblin children and youths (“squeakers”). They do a lot of scutwork and gofering, and they get eaten by Gollum.

  9. Thank you for the post. Halfway through reading it I got seized full-force by a clip of a story it inspired. I had to stop reading the post to get it all down.

    ~4,400 words written, plus another ~400 in notes about what comes after. (Rounded down because I’m not sure the wordcounter I used was correct.)

    I haven’t written anything aside from roleplay posts in weeks and weeks and nothing was grabbing me as far as what I wanted to work on. So I really appreciate it.

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