Death is usually a fairly regular occurrence in fantasy writing. So surely one or two of your characters deserve a good send off?
In my novel “Cry of the Elemental” I provide an opulent funeral for one of my lead characters, where she is buried in a sarcophagus shaped like a gondola, and laid to rest with other members of her family in a massive tomb that has been pre-prepared for her in a necropolis full of similarly outlandish buildings. This character’s status in life demanded a magnificent funeral in death and so I took inspiration from ancient Egyptian preparations for the burial of their pharaohs, Venetian funerary symbolism and to form the necropolis I exaggerated the grand cemeteries (both ancient and modern) that you see in parts of Europe with their large family tombs. Not every character is going to need such an expensive funeral, but it’s worth considering unusual funerary rites to add colour and drama to your stories. A good funeral may mark a significant turning point in your story, so here is a little inspiration from the real world.
- Sati or Suttee – This was the practice where the widow of a recently deceased man would commit suicide in the flames of his funeral pyre. It was supposed to be a voluntary practice but there are accounts of women being dragged onto the pyres of their husbands. India and Indonesia are two countries where Sati was once practiced but there were similar practices in other parts of the world. It was a shocking ritual, but one that has provided inspiration for scenes in many books over the years, including Around the World in 80 Days and The Far Pavilions.
- Ancient Egypt – No other civilisation ritualised death so elaborately than the ancient Egyptians. We all know of the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings where preparations for the death of pharaohs were made well in advance. But ordinary people also prepared for a well deserved after life because it was an integral part of their lives and beliefs. Sarcophagi had to be paid for and decorated in advance, funeral spells and scripts were written, tombs had to be built or dug out of the hills then decorated as well with stories of life and passages from the Book of the Dead. Then when death finally arrived there was the embalmer to organise, mourners to hire, noise to make, various things from the person’s life to place in the tomb, as well as all the funeral rituals, including the “opening of the mouth” which symbolised the reanimation of the deceased.
- Bali – In Bali the dead are buried initially and then when the family has saved enough money to do so, they will exhume their loved one and place them within an elaborately decorated wooden and paper animal such as a bull or dragon, then after a grand procession the bones are cremated. Burning the body is believed to release the soul so that it can be reincarnated into a new body and is a great cause for joyous celebration and feasting. Because this can be quite a costly practice, families and communities often exhume multiple bodies at the same time to perform the ritual jointly.
- Sky burials – In areas of Tibet and Mongolia people believe that after death the body is simply an empty vessel from which the spirit has already departed. Therefore the deceased is left on a platform or cliff face to be eaten by carrion birds and returned to the earth. Some indigenous American and Australian peoples also have similar beliefs and practices where the body is left exposed to decompose. In some cases bones of the deceased are retained by families.
- Vikings – Not every Viking warrior was buried in a ship, but you have to admit that it was an extraordinary way to send someone off to Valhalla. Boats were usually set on fire and pushed out to sea, but occasionally they were buried. Everything a warrior needed accompanied the deceased, including weapons, armour and food. There are also written accounts of sacrificial victims, both animal and human, accompanying the deceased as well – usually after being ritually abused or raped. But the boat wasn’t always made of wood. There are also numerous burials in the Nordics where the grave is surrounded by stones in the shape of a ship.
- Body with a view – There are cultures in South East Asia and South America that bury their dead on cliff faces or in caves, and visit them regularly with food and sometimes fresh clothing. Some cultures also retrieve their dead (usually mummified) so that they may attend important ceremonies and festivals, before being returned to their resting place.
- Endocannibalism – Some ancient cultures in Papua New Guinea and South America believed that eating the dead created a permanent union with their loved ones.
- Irish communities – Irish funeral rituals are gentle and moving. The deceased will usually remain in their home, often in an open casket, where friends and family can come to pay their last respects at the “wake”(and have a cup of tea and a sandwich). Then a “removal” takes place to move the body from the home to the church, usually the evening before the burial. If the deceased’s home is close to the church, then family and friends will often carry the coffin there on their shoulders in a silent procession. On the day of the burial there is a service celebrating the life of the deceased, and if the cemetery is within the church grounds the coffin is carried to the grave. Afterwards mourners are invited back to one of the relative’s homes (for a cup of tea and a sandwich).
- Gems – It may have started with the creation of gems and jewels from beloved pets, but you too can have a ring or necklace made from a relative by compacting the cremated remains.
- Colours – Those attending a funeral might not necessarily be wearing black. In Japan and China they wear white, but in medieval Europe it was also customary for nobility to wear white whilst in mourning and some still do so today. In parts of Africa it is customary to wear red, but in the Philippines to wear red when someone dies is to invite illness or death upon yourself. Ancient Egyptians wore yellow because of its association with the sun. Papua New Guinean women sometimes paint themselves with grey clay. And in Thailand and Brazil purple is a colour of mourning, and the colour is frowned upon if used in everyday life.
How the dead are treated and their lives celebrated at a funeral says a great deal about the characters in your story. Rough handling may show disrespect, while lavish funerals may be respectful but show contempt for those who have nothing. It’s a great way of imparting subtle hints about the dead character and those around them by describing the funeral, rather than the character directly.
I’ve started a Pinterest page on funeral customs and rites to provide more inspiration on this topic.