D is for Death
Horumn hooked her hand through the air and glared at her. “The dead are still close,” she said. “Do not call her by name. She was cruel enough in life and death…death can change a soul.” She grunted, looking warily around the empty cave, then took the lantern to a hook on the wall and hung it up. “Of course he didn’t let you go, fool. The dead are hungry, the grave is cold, and your little son swims helpless below your heart. Ha! Your mate will let all you frogs run together when you stamp your foot, and abandon the home of his ancient fathers for your dreams, and pluck down the moon should you ask for it with water on your naked face, but some things he will not risk. Nor should he.” –Olivia
He was careful with his brother’s body as he turned it. Shuiv’s blood was slow, his life gone, but he would not truly be dead until his funeral pyre had been consumed. While he could still feel, he deserved no less than the highest respect. –The Last Hour of Gann
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I’m typing this in my aunt’s kitchen, a thousand miles from home, a 44-oz cup of Diet Coke tucked comfortably beneath my chin and a houseplant of some broad-leafed variety close tickling my left ear. It is a pretty big plant—more a floor-plant than a table-plant, I would think—and not very interesting to look at, although there are stalks here and there to suggest it has flowered at some point in its life. Its leaves are mostly green, except at the tips, where they are nearly all withered, cracked and brown. The stalks that were maybe flowers in its season are all yellow and dry. Several leaves are no more than ribbons of crinkled decay amid the green. I will not say the plant is dying, at least not where my aunt can hear me. She, like most of my relations, can grow a garden like something you’d see in a seed catalogue…of course, I can’t see her garden now. The season is past. It’s dead. The only plant left for her to tend is this one in the kitchen and she does tend it, stubbornly watering and fluffing and whisking away the leaves that drop so the live ones don’t see them and freak out. Did she work this hard, I wonder, to save her garden plants? No. After the last harvest, she tore them up, root and stalk, and mulched them to feed next year’s cannibalistic crop. Their time was done, she explained, so cheerfully. They had fulfilled their purpose and served no new one by cluttering up her yard. The plant on her kitchen table serves no purpose I can see, except to sit there and be a plant, but she fusses over it anyway.
My aunt’s kitchen table is a good place to write about death, I decide. Or at least, to write about how our reaction to death exposes certain facets of our personality. And isn’t that what worldbuilding is all about? Not the setting, but the emotion it evokes?
I think it’s safe to say that there is no human culture on Earth, past or present, that does not in some way mark the passing of one of their own. Even in the animal kingdom, an awareness of death and acts of grief have been observed in many species. We inhabitants of this old rock, Earth, despite our infinite diversity, have two experiences in common; human, animal…houseplant…we are all born and we all die.
This is not an article about dying. I know, the title is deceptive. This is not even necessarily an article about death. I don’t think I can be trusted to speak intelligently about something I haven’t experienced. This article is about our reactions to death, or rather, the reactions of your fictional non-human race to death.
Granted, your book may never need to deal with this issue. I’m told that many people consider death to be something of a downer and not everyone wants to read about it, particularly in a romance, which is what they tell me I write. Intriguing notion, that—a book without death. I have to admit, I’m as incapable of writing a book without killing someone as I am writing a book without using words. But at the risk of repeating myself, it’s not death I’m writing about; it’s how my characters fight death, face it, even embrace it, and it’s about what comes after.
I don’t mean the afterlife (although I do dip my pen in that ink now and then), I mean after death. There is—if you will permit me a small show of morbid enthusiasm—a wondrous variety of funerals to be found on Earth. From the ancient Egyptians, who mummified and entombed their loved ones with everything they might need in the afterlife, to modern-day Indonesion villagers, who keep their ‘sleeping’ relatives in bed (sometimes for years) until they can pay for the elaborate burial; from the Navajo, who require spiritual cleansing after touching a body, to the Wari, who make people-jerky out of their dearly departed and nibble on it whenever they get to missing someone; from women paid to keen and wail at ancient Roman funerals to the musicians who march in jazzy New Orleans funeral parades; whether you’re mourning a loss or celebrating a life, there are endless ways to deal with death. However, the feelings of grief, loss and love that accompany it are universal. Stay true to that and, no matter how alien the rest of your world may be, your story will resonate with your readers.
If you, too, have a morbid interest in death customs but don’t know where to start indulging it, here are a few ideas: There is a marvelous book on my shelves at home called Celebrations of Death by Peter Metcalf, which covers some of the funereary practices of various cultures here on Earth. Other great reads are Death Warmed Over by Lisa Rogak, Funeral Customs by Bertram S. Puckle and The History of Death by Micheal Kerrigan. If you happen to be the area, you can take a tour through the Museum of Death in Hollywood, the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas, or the Bestattungsmuseum Wien (Funeral Museum Vienna) in, duh, Vienna, Austria. I get a lot of my general information online from www.sacred-texts.com/etc/fcod/ but for the really unique stuff, you have to get specific; just plug “funeral customs around the world” into your search engine and prepare to spend the day reading.