Death is perhaps the one true fact of life. It is common in all living things, and as humans, we’ve developed a myriad of rituals and customs to help us deal with the inevitable. Vikings buried their dead using water and fire. Most Western cultures now see burial in the earth as the proper way to do things, though some people choose to be cremated. Others still have their bodies left on mountains to be devoured by nature. But the rituals of death go beyond just how the dead are put to rest; they also deal with how death is treated by society, how it’s talked about, and how it is accepted.
If you’re writing a fantasy story, chances are someone will die — either of old age, murder, or a horrible spell. So figuring out how your new world faces death and the issues it crops up is an important part to understanding the world your characters live in and how they’ll interact with it.
What are the attitudes towards death?
This will be the most important factor in determining what the rituals surrounding death will look like. Is death a thing to be feared? Or is it accepted as a way of life? Is it just a waypoint on the path to another existence? The angels in Death Defiant can fall prey to a domino effect of death, thousands dying from grief when ze learns of the unexpected death of a loved one. Therefore, angelic culture sees death as a transition to a new life. Dying of old age is seen as honorable, while dying in battle is seen as the result of unnecessary brutality. Therefore, the angels stay out of all wars and encourage universal empathy in order to limit what they see as preventable deaths. While it’s not often talked about, death is considered an unavoidable fact of life, and juvenile angels go through lessons to learn how to accept and come to terms with their own mortality and the mortality of their families. These kinds of details helped shape the world of DD and better the world-building.
Are there mourning rituals? What are they?
If you’d like to see some intense mourning rituals, look no farther than the Victorians. Their mourning lasted years and came with strict dress codes and burial rites. Some even paid professional mourners to come cry at funerals, though that’s a profession that’s leaked into modern day as well. Dress, burial, preservation — all of these things and more are involved with the affairs of the dead, and it’s important to have an idea of what the details of them are, especially if you’ll be having a funeral scene in your story. George R.R. Martin alludes to many of these in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, the death rituals often deeply ingrained in the faith followed by the people affected.
What does this culture believe happens after death?
This will greatly affect how your characters react to death. While the death of a loved one or death of oneself is a hard thing to cope with, the ideas that the dead find peace in the afterlife, are punished for their transgressions, or are reborn can have different effects on how your characters will treat death. Many people have died fighting for their religion or country believing that they will be rewarded for their valor in the afterlife, but if your culture believes that the afterlife is a painful void, characters will have a much harder time coping with loss.
What is done with the bodies?
Burial? Burned to ashes? Entombed? There are many options for what can happen to the body after death, and it’s going to rely heavily on the issues discussed above. Many of these traditions are rooted in the myths, legends, or religions of that culture and belief of what death holds in store. It’s also important to consider what will be done with the deceased’s belongings. Is it passed on to family? The state? Is the deceased buried with it? Is it offered as a sacrifice?
These questions should help guide you into thinking about how your fantasy world operates and give you a clearer picture of what it would be like to live in it.