It is officially October. You know what that means? Time to clamber up the rickety ladder into the mildly perilous rafters of our attic in quest of that which makes me the happiest human in the world—Halloween decorations. That’s right. I’m proud to say I’m one of “those” people. I was at Spirit Halloween weeks ago buying some new haunted decor. The light-up eye ball I found will go nicely with my collection of dismembered body parts. I’ve already planned and purchased mine and my husband’s costumes for our friend’s Halloween party, and I have a separate scary costume to wow my trick-or-treaters with. No one appreciates creepy cosplay like children do. Naturally, with the advent of this most spooktacular time of the year, I found us a particularly mood-setting tab from my never-ending abyss of open browser windows.
(Please don’t judge the obvious worsening of my addiction.)
This was a very unintentional and coincidental find from a few weeks ago that just happens to be from a local news site about the unearthing of an unmarked grave in Lexington, MS in 1969. (Ohhhh, spooky!) The significance? The woman, estimated to have died sometime in the mid-1800s, was exceptionally well preserved in her red dress, thus earning her the title the Lady in Red and instigating much speculation as to the circumstances of her death and burial in what should have been a mostly unsettled part of Mississippi at the time. If you too are intrigued by the mysterious and macabre, I highly recommend hitting that new tab button and perusing The Dead History blog for more info, but before you whet your Halloween spirit on spooky tales, why not ponder death in the world of fantasy writing?
With all its political turmoil and dragons and unruly magic, the world of fantasy dances precariously with death at every page. And gods know we as fantasy writers, especially those of us who lean toward the dark and brutal, so do love killing off characters in the absolute worst and most creative ways. But is it fair that we merely kill them? Don’t their bodies, served up to our horrified readers, deserve some postmortem treatment, whether respectful or otherwise?
WARNING: Please do not proceed if you are squeamish about death, corpses, human sacrifice, human butchering, cannibalism, or other gruesome subjects.
With that said, here are some interesting examples of final disposition to consider when you next lay a character to rest:
Funeral pyres have been a popular means of cremating the dead in both ancient Viking and Roman cultures as well as in the Hindu and Sikh religions. And while movies may have taught us that Viking were laid to rest in boats lit by flaming arrows as they drifted out to sea, that is pure cinematic exaggeration. Most Viking cremations disappointingly occurred on land although, to make it better, their boats were sometimes pulled ashore to be used as part of the pyre or burial mound. Viking pyres were often filled with weapons, accessories, food and drink, animal sacrifices and even sacrificial slaves as the Norse believed that which was cremated or buried with them was taken into the afterlife. The pyres were made to create massive amounts of smoke since they believed the smoke was like a vessel itself whisking souls into the afterlife. Funeral pyres evoked a sense of celebration and sometimes included feasting. In Denmark, flint stone was often thrown into the fires to make them crackle like fireworks. After cremation on a funeral pyre, the ashes were collected in urns that were buried or interred or scattered. It kind of depended on your status. If you were someone of importance, you might get your ashes buried in an extravagant burial mounds, perhaps with a whole ship.
In ancient Rome, funeral pyres were set atop a pit so that they might be interred upon cremation in what was called bustum. Some public places contained an ustrinum or a stone structure which housed funeral pyres to be used for successive cremations. Mass cremation could be performed in the ustrinum though this was only done for the poor or in times of epidemic. Generally, ashes weren’t mixed, though of course there’s the occasional tale of star-crossed lovers intermingling their ashes in the same urn. There was also this one emperor who mixed his brother’s ashes with those of his supporters, whom the emperor had executed, as some sort of departing “F you, bro.” Another interesting tidbit about Roman funeral pyres: there was an unsettling number of records of pyre mishaps, such as bodies exploding and dousing the fire or bodies being thrown into the air due to the heat or those presumed dead suddenly awakening on their funeral pyre only to burn alive (yikes). There has also been written record of a Roman practice called os resectum, where a single finger was removed from the deceased and remained with the bereaved family, only to be reunited with the ashes upon their burial.
Funeral pyres are still actively used by the Hindu and Sikh of India. Varanasi, in particular, is famous for its cremation ghat where hundreds of dead are burned day and night alongside the oils, herbs, flowers, and trinkets meant to help them in their next life. Varanasi is considered a sacred place by the Hindu, who believe that placing the ashes of the dead in the Ganges River at Varnasi will release the dead from the cycle of rebirth and allow them to transcend into moksha. Despite being outlawed by the government and scorned by many sects, the ancient Hindu practice of sati still occurs in isolated incidents throughout India. Sati is the practice of self-immolation of a widow in which she joins her deceased husband on his funeral pyre or even throws herself onto the burning pyre after it has been lit, either voluntarily or through coercion, as a means of bringing honor to her family. Women have long had few rights in Indian society, so it probably seems like a more suitable alternative to being stripped of all your husband’s belongings and made to eat boiled rice and sleep on a hard mat for the rest of your life as some sort of social outcast.
Uses in fantasy: - heavily forested regions with lots of lumber - cultures that saw fire as a method purification or transcendence - anywhere with an abundance of fire mages or dragons
Sky burial is a method of disposition unique to the Zoroastrians and Tibetan Buddhists where a body is placed out in the open to be exposed to the sun and to carrion birds for decomposition. In Zoroastrianism, this is done atop a tall tower called a Dakhma, or “Tower of Silence,” and is a means of giving back to nature. Zoroastrians saw the human corpse as a source of pollution. Given that the elements of fire, water, and earth were sacred, cremation or burial either in the ground or in water would cause pollution of these elements, hence sky burial. Tibetan Buddhists, meanwhile, believe in the rebirth of the soul through reincarnation, and so the body postmortem is nothing more than an empty shell full of nutrients to be left generously for carrion birds to feed on. The name for their ritual is jhator, which means “giving alms to the birds,” and their religious leaders do actually cut the body in pieces and feed the birds during this process. It may sound gruesome, but in Tibet, vultures are viewed as holy creatures, thought even to be feminine. If vultures don’t come and eat the deceased, it’s a sign that the person had accumulated bad karma in their lifetime. It makes practical sense too that Tibet would practice sky burial since it lies above the tree line, where the ground is too rocky for burial and where lumber is too scarce for cremation.
Uses in fantasy: - societies set in mountainous regions - cultures that believes the soul departs at death - bird-loving cultures
Trees have always played a huge part in Native American stories and culture and were often used for medicinal purposes, incense, canoes, bows, totem poles and artwork, and as clan symbols and as markers. Particularly old oak trees were treated as sacred and used as gathering places or for special events. Certain trees were even associated with the afterlife. The canotila, or “tree dwellers,” of Sioux legend were forest spirits that acted as messengers from the spirit world. Considering this, tree burial almost seems natural. It’s a type of sky burial used by some of the First Nations tribes of the Great Plains region of North America, such as the Sioux and the Cheyenne, in which they placed their dead in cedar boxes or wrapped them in brightly colored burial shrouds and set them in the branches of a large tree or (in absence of trees) atop a scaffold. Many Native American tribes believe that the soul of the deceased transitions into the next life over a period of time, so often days-long wakes are held to watch over the body and help it transition. Placing the bodies elevated above the ground not only was thought to hasten this journey but also offered protection from scavenging wolves and bears during the transition. The dead were dressed in their best clothes, wrapped in blankets, and left with pipes, accessories, weapons, food, and drink for their journey into the afterlife. Mourning, wailing, and speaking to the deceased was often encouraged, and in some tribes it was common for relatives to cut themselves in a show of grief. There was one story of a Cheyenne mother who almost cut off a finger in her grief over her dead child. The dead were left for months in their burial trees before the skeletal remains were taken down and given a secondary burial or placed in a bone house. The Sioux in particular left the bodies for a full year before their ground burial.
Uses in fantasy: - forested environments. - cultures closely tied to nature - cultures that believe the soul remains temporarily after death
Hanging coffins are a type of burial practice found in China, the Philippines, and Indonesia, where coffins are placed on cliffs either in caves or atop rocky projection or man-made beams. The Kankanaey people of Sagada, Philippines are particularly famous for their hanging coffins which they believe bring their dead closer to the spirit realm and thus to their ancestral spirits. Placing the deceased on cliff-sides also prevented scavengers from disturbing the bodies and deterred looters from grave robbing and enemies from headhunting. Rituals and animal sacrifice were performed after the death of a loved one, and the body was smoked to delay decomposition. The deceased was then tied to a death chair, or sangadil, which was covered with a blanket and placed facing the front door of the home so that relatives could pay their respects. After some days of vigil, the body is then tied in the fetal position, as the KanKanaey believed people should exit the world as they entered it, and wrapped with a blanket. As the dead are carried to the burial site “wrapped like a basketball” (hey, that’s how they described it themselves), their bodies are passed between mourners in hopes of being smeared with its blood or fluid, which is thought to bring success and transfer the skills of the deceased. Only the most influential individuals of the Kankanaey, usually men of leadership status, were actually hung along the cliff face, the height of their coffin indicating their importance. The general populace was more commonly buried in stacked coffins within the caves of the cliffs.
Uses in fantasy: - areas with steep terrain and cliffs - cultures that revere the sky as a heavenly realm
Bed burials were just as they sound—the deceased buried lying upon beds. This was a rather uncommon practice across Europe though occurrence of bed burials have been recorded in Scandanavia, Slovokia, Germany, and England. It was, as you might guess, something done by those wealthy enough to afford to bury a whole bed. Some bed burials contained rather expensive furnishings and belongings and were often placed in barrows or in Scandanavian ship burials (again, whole ships were buried). Scepters, musical instruments, weapons, board games, and ornately jeweled crosses are some of the objects that have been found in bed burials. Beds were typically one of two types: the more elaborate baluster bed and the simpler crate bed (which was often hard for archaeologists to differentiate from a lidless coffin). The theory behind bed burials is that it was simply to insinuate sleep rather than death as a means of comfort to the bereaved while also burying the sleeping dead in comfort. Sleep has long been a metaphor for death, particularly for cultures and religions who believe in the resurrection of the body. Beds and headrests (aka stone pillows) were usually buried with ancient Egyptians in their tombs and pyramids, and the headrest itself was seen as a symbol of rebirth and thought to aid the deceased in reaching the afterlife. In mainland Europe, bed burials were used by peoples of all ages, genders, and religions, but in England they became popular chiefly among Christian women during the 7th century. It’s deemed this was because these women were immigrants of mainland Europe brought in by the Church to marry wealthy, influential non-Christian men in order to expand the Church’s influence throughout England and just happened to bring along with them their cultural traditions of bed burials.
Uses in fantasy: - wealthy or elite people with abundant land - cultures that believe in bodily resurrection - cultures who associate death with sleep
Skull Rack/Skull Tower
So the tzompantli, or skull rack, were structures built in Mesoamerica to hold the skulls of their human sacrifices. After someone was sacrificed, holes were usually drilled into the temples, and a pole inserted, which was then hung on a wooden rack. Ancient Mayans preferred a vertical impalement though. The largest and most famous is that of the Hueyi Tzompantli (Great Skull Rack) in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which contains about 60,000 skulls. The skulls were predominantly those of captured enemy warriors though some belonged to women and children who were bought as slaves explicitly for sacrifice. The Aztecs believed that human sacrifice was necessary to nourish the gods and keep the world from ending, so skull racks were a means of commemorating their victims and honoring the gods in addition to simply, you know, looking intimidating and serving as war trophies. Unsurprisingly, these tzompantli were usually constructed near temples and, more surprisingly, near ball courts. In fact, ball court reliefs found at Chichen Itza depict the beheading of a ball player, leading to some speculation among historians that some of the skulls on the skull racks belonged to losing coaches or even whole teams. However, other historians argue (as they do) that, since it was considered an honor to be sacrificed, the skulls may have instead belonged to the winning teams.
Similarly, there is a famous Skull Tower in Niš, Serbia which was constructed by the Ottomans during the First Serbian Uprising, where Serbs attempted to win their independence from the Ottoman Empire. During the battle fought at Niš, the Serbs found themselves on the losing end, so rather than he and his men be impaled by the Ottomans, the Serbian commander Stevan Sinđelić set off an explosion that killed him and all his men. Angered by this, the Ottoman governor had the bodies of all the Serbian rebels skinned, stuffed, and sent to the sultan. All 952 skulls were eventually returned and used to build the Skull Tower as a warning to the Serbs of the consequences of rebellion. Today Skull Tower acts as a Serbian pilgrimage site, representing their struggle for independence.
Uses in fantasy: - warlike cultures - cultures who like bone decor - people who like to intimidate their enemies
An ossuary is any container, building, or site intended to hold human skeletal remains after a temporary burial. This was a common practice in places where burial space was limited. The deceased would usually be buried in a grave for a few years until the body had decayed. Then the bones were dug up and placed in an ossuary. If the ossuary was a container that was then itself reburied, this was considered a secondary burial. The catacombs of Paris are considered the world’s largest ossuary, containing the skeletal remains of about six million people. Not creepy enough for you? Well, how about ossuaries that take the form of churches and chambers adorned with bones? And when I say adorned, I mean adorned: the Sedlece Ossuary, or appropriately named “Bone Church,” of Kutna Hora, Czechia containes about 40,000 human skeletons arranged to create a bone chandelier, bone chalices, bone candelabras, bone pyramids, and bone candle holders among other things. The woodcarver tasked with arranging the bones even left his signature on the wall in, yes, bone. (Click here for pictures!)
Uses in fantasy: - areas with limited burial space - people who like to decorate their house with bones
Ah, yes, my favorite. Endocannibalism is a type of cannabalism in which a person consumes other human beings from within their own social group as opposed to exocannibalism, the consumption of humans outside the social group. Believe it or not, endocannibalism has been a long-standing funeral practice in certain cultures such as the Wari peoples of the Amazon and the Fore peoples of Papua New Guinea, and while it may sound horrific, it actually has incredible cultural significance. The Wari peoples of the Amazon actually long ago practiced both endo- and exocannibalism, but the two forms of cannibalism held very different meanings for the Wari. Exocannibalism was practiced on their enemies during times of warfare and was an intentional act of anger and disrespect toward their victims while endocannibalism was performed at funerals as an act of respect and grief management. The Wari believed in loosening attachments to the dead and would burn the possessions of deceased relatives, refrain from speaking their names, and rearrange the places the deceased spent time. Ultimately, consuming the deceased relative was part of this process since the body was the physical representation of their personality and individuality, and the Wari wished to distance them from the living. They also believed the spirits of their ancestors eventually returned from the world of the dead as peccaries to provide their hunters with food for the tribe, and consuming their bodies allowed for this transformation to occur in a circle-of-life sort of way. Wari funerary cannibalism involved placing the body on racks to decompose. The shoulders were then trimmed, and the body was packed into a large jar, which was stored into the kitchen to ferment like wine or beer (*sips wine thoughtfully*). The liquid remains were then consumed while the solid remains were buried.
Likewise, among the Fore people, the consumption of deceased family members was a similar expression of respect. In their beliefs, a person has five souls, each of which must be helped to its rightful destination through funeral rituals. Two parts of the soul, the part containing that person’s special skills and the part containing the power of their ancestors, were believed to remain with the tribe through the practice of certain rituals, including the cooking and consumption of the deceased. By incorporating the physical body of their dead relatives into their own living bodies, they were not only freeing the spirit of the dead but also assuring their positive aspects remained with tribe. Men generally consumed the flesh while women consumed the brains sharing pieces of brain with children and the elderly. The term transumption is sometimes used to describe this ritual of consuming the bodies of deceased loved ones. In fact, due to this tradition of transumption among the Fore people, it is believed some portions of the population have developed immunity to certain prion diseases, and there has been promising genetics research with prions that may well help sufferers of the neurodegenerative Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Uses in fantasy: - cultures who see consumption as a part of a circle of life - cultures who believe consumption transfers skills to the consumer - vampires
I hope this sheds some light on the complexities of death. Death is not nearly so simple as just the act of dying. Death is intrinsically linked to our most personal beliefs. Religion, culture, status, and environment affect the way people (and our characters) see and treat death. This is especially important when crafting fantasy worlds that incorporate many different cultures or races as it can be a source of conflict or challenge for your characters. Take for example this scenario: Your band of characters from the warm, balmy southern reaches of the continent are traversing the wintry tundra when, in mid-quest, a friend dies. Perhaps in their lands, they believe that committing the dead to the ground allows their spirits to become one with Mother Earth, thus earning eternal rest, and that to do otherwise leaves their souls to wander the mortal realm in eternal anguish. This presents a moral dilemma. What do they do? Do they try to bury them and find the frozen ground is too hard? Do they abandon their friend’s soul to its fate in favor of completing a potentially dire mission? Or do they abandon their quest to return southward to bury the body? Do they split up so they can try and achieve both? These are the beautiful moments of storytelling where there are no easy answers, but whatever you (or your characters decide), it will inevitably paint a clearer picture of who they are and how they deliberate through such dilemmas; and it can unintentionally provide for some amazing subplots.
So how does your society’s beliefs about death affect their funeral customs and disposition methods? Do they respect death? Fear it? Venerate it? See it as a natural end or a beginning to something more? Does your character’s personal beliefs reflect their society’s beliefs? Or do they conflict with it? How does the environment affect how the dead are disposed of? And what cultural or religious traditions may have developed because of these factors?
As delightfully macabre as it seems, thinking on death customs for your culture can actually unearth (ha, burial joke) quite a bit of insight into your world-building. These are the intricate and delicate parts of culture that will breathe life (ha, last one) into your worldbuilding. Happy October to all! Now to hang those Halloween decorations…
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