Distracting Cat Sidhe: Culture and Death
Out of the Darkness
Culture plays a very large role in how your characters view death, how they mourn it, and what kind of rituals they observe surrounding it. The title of this post is a reference to games played at an Irish Wake, which traditionally run from sundown to sunup. There’s food and drink, with the corpse of the recently departed sat up at the head of the table and there are games played all night. The cultural reason for the games is to distract Cat Sidhe lest they sneak in and steal the soul of the recently dead before it can pass from this world. It was also fully expected that anyone in the community who had a grievance with the deceased would air them at the wake, and also seek forgiveness for trespasses and slights that they may have committed and not resolved before the death occurred. If there was any unresolved business when the sun came up, the spirit was trapped in the mortal world and it would become angry or go mad. The Ireland in which this practice evolved was a superstitious one, with a heavy belief in the otherworldly. They hung horseshoes above their doors, carried a nail in their pockets, and spread salt to protect themselves from vengeful spirits. They knew as fact that fairies were real and that they could be both helpful when appeased and spiteful when insulted. The day to day life of an average person was directly impacted by this knowledge. It was part of the blood of the land, and much of it persists today. This knowledge also impacted how they viewed death. Everyone knew that crows gathered near battlefields because they were the eyes and ears of the Morrigan, the chooser of the slain.
Spartan women were allowed to inherit, own land, own slaves, own businesses, and most of the other things that are required for independence. It was absolutely vital for the survival of their society that this be the case, because every Spartan man was a soldier. They were frequently gone, and died frequently in battle. Someone had to run things while they were gone. Slaves had to be managed, businesses run, fields planted and harvested, and every other task of civilization that isn’t fighting a war. As America found out when most of our working age men were sent off to fight in two different world wars, that someone had to be the women. As a result of this remarkably progressive view, when a woman died giving birth, she was given the same honor as a man who died in war. Her grave was marked. A wildly pragmatic people, they didn’t “waste” land with special burial places. Bodies were buried on the battlefield frequently, and archeological digs have found bodies buried in the traditional way next the walls of what are thought to be residential houses frequently.
Everyone in ancient Greece knew that if the deceased wasn’t buried or didn’t have a coin to pay the ferryman, they wouldn’t be able to cross the River Styx and get to the Asphodel Fields where they would forget their previous life and move on to whichever afterlife they had earned. They also knew that the gods were real and very much in your business, and they were highly likely to be insulted if you didn’t pay them the proper respect. Anyone making a major decision definitely needed to go consult an oracle to hear the will of the gods. Sacrifice to the gods was a regular part of life and happened in homes as well as temples.
The funeral rites your character observes will reflect the common culture. If they come from a heavily militaristic culture, there’s a very good chance that a death in battle is honored and respected, perhaps even preferred. There will be special honors at the funeral for this. In America, we have a whole ceremony. Anyone who has seen a 21 gun salute and heard taps play while looking on that flag draped coffin will never be able to hear taps play without feeling it in their heart. In a culture that is not just militaristic, but actively hostile to its neighbors (think the Vikings here), there’s a pretty good chance that the funeral rites for civilians are much more simple and viewed with lower status.
If they are also a pious people, consider the nature of the religion. Do they believe in an afterlife? If yes, what kind? Are there many available options (such as the Norse religion or Ancient Greece, or Christianity)? Do they believe in some version of hell or purgatory? All of these things will have a heavy impact. Reincarnation? Whole different set of considerations. A religion with a more loose kind of structure will reflect that in their funerals. They will generally be more hands on affairs, with families preparing the body themselves and having the viewing/wake in their own home. A religion with a lot of organization and structure will have more pomp and circumstance to it, and probably a priest caste that prepares the bodies and conducts the funeral service.
These are just a few of the things you need to consider. Look at real life cultures that are similar to the one your character lives in and see what they did. Make it up from there, certainly, but make sure that the funeral services actually make sense for the world. You’re not going to see a culture of people who believe that every life is sacred leave a body in an unmarked grave outside of those who would be criminal or deviant in other ways for that culture. Poor people don’t bury family treasures with their dead, even in cultures where you actually believe that they will get to use what is given to them on burial. Even untouched graves for the common people dating around the same time as the pyramids were being built are really low on treasures, though they frequently have other common goods and maybe a few coins. Slaves, if your culture has them, will have even more simple funeral services that may or may not actually even stem from your primary culture if the slaves were captures elsewhere and brought to the land where your story takes place.
How death itself is viewed also comes heavily from culture. Death was such a frequent part of the world before antibiotics that every locality had their own specific customs. No two villages would be completely alike, even if they shared the same religion. Birth and death touched every home. There’s a story of a woman bringing her dead child to Buddha and begging him to bring him back to life. He told her to bring him five mustard seeds that came from a home where no one had died. After asking at home after home, she found that there was no such home and came to understand that death came to all and grief was a part of life that she had to accept.
This is the general view of death in most of the world where industrialization came late, or really hasn’t had a big impact. Death usually happens in the home, outside of sudden violent or accidental deaths, with family in attendance and providing most of the care. There may or may not be much in the way of medical care involved. In areas without a lot in the way of formal medical care, there is very likely to be a local healer equivalent, with or without a religious role. Pratchett’s ideas about witches didn’t come out of nowhere and are reflected in a good many real world cultures, both historical and current. People mourn their friends and family, of course, but death in general is just part of life. Most people have seen and touched a dead body. In India and most of Africa, families prepare the body themselves before they are disposed of by local custom (frequently cremation in both places, but not always). Grief is expected from the family and those close to the dead, and there are social expectations for what grief looks like. Some of these are extremely formal to the point of almost being required. The custom of widows throwing themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre in India is a famous and extreme example, but open screaming and ripping of clothes are actually pretty common. There are both formal and informal rituals surrounding death that exist in every community, and they can vary wildly from on village to the next even if there’s a shared religion between the villages.
The modern Western world is far more squeamish about death, particularly in the United States. The vast majority of people die in a hospital in the US, despite about there being a strong preference to die at home in every last study conducted on the subject. This is quickly becoming the case in much of Europe as well. This translates into a population that is removed from death, and repulsed by it. Death is not discussed with families and there is little in the way of social structures to deal with it. Families dealing with a dying person in the home, or who have recently lost a loved one, are left feeling adrift and unsupported unless they have a strong social network of some kind, usually religious but not always. It also leaves those with a terminal disease feeling unwanted, as if they should be hidden away. People are unsure how to talk about it, because there’s no cultural language for it. Families rarely prepare the bodies of their dead loved ones. This is generally reserved for medical professionals, funeral services, ect. Death is viewed as something alien, something frightening.
Grieving is far more difficult in Western cultures because of this. There isn’t a lot in the way of local rituals describing grieving and encouraging it, and there’s a tendency to get into the way of proper mourning by making it inappropriate to scream out one’s pain or laugh at the happy memories of someone during a funeral. Social conventions are far more restrained and stoic. Complicated and extended grieving is far more of a problem because of the lack of healthy social outlets. This is more of a problem in the US than in most of Europe, but the local traditions are slowly dying in much of Europe too.
A good example of what is meant by a healthy social outlet for grieving can be described by a Home Going that is held in some American Baptist churches. At the start, the pastor gave his sermon, which had a strong element of reminding everyone that the recently dead was free of their earthy chains and had gone home. Then you had the speakers, largely family members, speak to everyone and tell the usual expected stories about what a pillar of the community the deceased was. After that, everyone walked by the body for the viewing and it was expected that people would scream, cry, throw themselves over the casket, rage at the sky, and otherwise very openly express their loss. Finally, everyone went back to their seats and they played very loud, very upbeat gospel music. People danced in the isles. They laughed. Over the course of the service, you had catharsis and release. You were allowed to openly grieve, and then invited to share in the joy of living with others. It’s a very good way to create a social structure that is supportive of those left behind.
Going back to Cath Sidhe, the Irish Wake is a good structure for a healthy grieving structure in a non-modern society. People have a chance to put to bed old grievances that can have a later destructive impact on social and emotional health. People have a chance to celebrate the life of the person who is gone. They get a chance to come together and share their grief and their memories. They also get the emotional and psychological benefit of feeling like they’ve done a service, a last service, to the dead member of their community.
Ultimately, you create the world that your character lives in and you will almost certainly have people die in that world. Figuring out how they think about death will tell you a lot about how they think about life, and that always makes for a far more satisfying book.
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(Header image is “Fairy Portal” by Cedar Sanderson)