*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.