Worldbuilding: Life, Death, and Rituals

So how do your world’s cultures handle life and death? And when I say rituals, I don’t just mean the kind of formal recognition of christenings and funerals. (Though those are more important to tying a society together than most people realize, and ought to show up in fiction more.)

I mean, what does the family involved, and the community around them, customarily do? What’s a mark of respect? What’s the extra mile, whether done from compassion, justice, or guilt? How is the community expected to cope with one life more or less?

For example, ideally a live birth should always be a joyous occasion. But… that depends. Famine and war have their own grim calculations. So does dynastic succession. Being born alive, especially as a girl, has been hazardous to the health of both child and mother at too many points in history. The early Christian community in Rome made an interesting reputation for themselves by seeking out and adopting infant girls left exposed to die. Not always a good reputation, mind. Too many wealthy Romans couldn’t imagine any good reason someone would want girl babies, so they invented a lot of gruesome rumors.

And then you have the cases where there’s a life and a death at the same time, when one or the other dies in childbirth. In some cultures that was a mark of shame, never to be spoken of except as an insult to the survivor. In others a mother dying was seen as an honorable death in battle, and celebrated to match a warrior’s victory.

Let’s assume everything has gone right, and mother and child are now resting comfortably-

Actually, no, you can’t assume that. Some cultures have enforced near total bedrest, while others expected the mother to jump back up and take care of the household immediately. Biologically speaking that second is a Bad Idea. Placental mammals are pulling off an extreme stunt to start with, and humans in particular have pushed it to the very edge. Compared to other great apes, we’re both born horribly premature and with great strain and risk to the mother. Wise human cultures observe some form of lying-in. Which is exactly what it sounds like; bed rest so a host of torn muscles get a chance to heal up right, with the side benefit of keeping a newborn that can’t regulate its body temperature in a warm and safe area. Neighbors and relatives bring cooked food, look after older children, and generally help out to make sure all the things the mother would usually be doing get done. (Or at least done enough.) And also to make sure the new father gets some rest, too. Young babies cause extreme sleep deprivation for the first few months. When you’re that tired you can do something unbelievably stupid, get yourself killed, and then the family’s really in trouble.

How much help varies. It’s usually proportional to how closely you’re related, or if not, to how much you can draw on the community to enforce reciprocity when you need help. “In anticipation of future reciprocation,” as some have put it.

This also holds for dealing with death. Almost everyone wants their remains decently handled and things taken care of after they’re gone. Helping a family survive grief makes it more likely they’ll be able to help you when one of your kin dies.

But what does that survival include, culturally? Mourning colors, rent garments, avoiding certain food, drinks, and activities? Destroying things considered unclean? Special foods or medicines for grieving souls, or those exhausted by bringing in a new life? Well-wishing bouquets?

Figure out a few of these for your world. Your heroes may be having an Adventure, but all around them will be people living ordinary lives. Those lives – and deaths – mean something. Your characters should see them.

And maybe bring a plate of pancakes to heat up for breakfast. It’s what neighbors do.


19 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Life, Death, and Rituals

  1. I’m actually putting in a funeral in the first part of my book. It’s a special funeral that no one wants to attend or conduct. One of the traditions is reciting a rite while wrapping the deceased individual in cloth that had been buried in salt for a year, though a quick dip in seawater works too in a pinch..

    Liked by 4 people

      1. No, that’s what the stake in the heart is for. Salt is seen as purifying and encourages the earth to not reject the body once it’s buried, usually with earthquakes.

        A few graves are regularly salted because no one is sure if the heart was staked, and no one in their right mind wants to dig up a potential hazard to life and sanity.

        And flowerbeds.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Early Christian writings oscilate amazingly about what happened to abandoned babies. If they were defending themselves against charges of human sacrifice, they accused pagans of murdering them. Charges of orgies? Of frequenting brothels after they had abandoned daughters that the brothels collected.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. There were a _lot_ of abandoned babies. We know that from archaeology. And we also know that brothels and slavetraders did sometimes collect babies from the dungheaps, although putting babies down the sewers was putting them beyond saving.

      Even if a woman wanted her baby, and sometimes even if a young husband wanted a baby, nobody could keep it if the paterfamilias said no. It was supposed to be good sense to expose disabled babies, or babies that looked like they might not thrive. And of course any baby that embarrassed the paterfamilias by existing — that was right out.

      The problem was that slavetraders/slaveowners didn’t have much use for babies until they had grown up a bit, and babies needed nursing and raising. So saving a baby was an unusual move, and often had to do with a baby being unusually goodlooking, or blonde, or something along those lines. And that meant that babies were going to the brothel.

      Sometimes it was done to cheer up a mother who’d lost her baby, like getting a puppy for a bitch whose litter just died. At least that was somewhat likely to end well.

      So yup, there were plenty of fronts upon which to attack Roman society about their treatment of babies. And that’s why a lot of Christians had names like Sterquilinus or Sterquilina, after the dungheap where they were found. (It was also a fairly common name among pagan rural people, because the god of manure was important to farms; so it wasn’t a name that necessarily would have bad connotations in society.)

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Bit of coincidence here.

    Just yesterday I was playing Final Fantasy 14, going through the Alchemist quest chain.

    The final part of the quest chain centers around two perfectly preserved dead bodies, that died several decades apart.

    Everyone who looked at them agreed that they were unnerving, “as if they would just wake up and walk off any moment.”

    This made it more difficult for the grieving loved ones to move on, since they always had this hope that they weren’t dead.

    Turns out it was because they were killed by a cursed blade designed to bring them back as zombies.
    The blade was old and lost part of it’s power, so it couldn’t bring them back, just preserve the corpses.

    The quest centers around investigating, getting the blade, and destroying it so the bodies can be laid to rest.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. In two separate stories I’ve been working on, I cover death practices briefly and this makes me think that I should flesh it out more.

    One story involves walled cities/towns with vast swathes of actively hostile land in between these locations. The honorable dead get cremated and their ashes can go home, or put into farming fields in order to keep helping their community. No one can afford extra land to be a graveyard when things are so bad outside the walls and expanding them is challenging (and potentially very unsafe) for a number of reasons.

    The “evil” dead are left to rot in the wastelands, and cursing often uses phrases like “By (such and such’s) bones!” And you only swear on a “villains” bones because the honorable dead don’t leave any behind.

    In the other story, which focuses on nonhumans, their practices involve burying their dead in their mushroom patches. Return to where you came from, but keep supporting the community by helping to grow more food. Resources for my fairies are stretched even thinner than in the other story I referenced, so it’s a good thing that they aren’t resorting to cannibalism.

    I should probably flesh them out more with things like birth and weddings— and do they even have the concept of birthday parties?

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Another thing to consider is the “realities” of a fictional world. In worlds that have the possibility of undead running around funerals will involve cremation more often than they will burial. It will just be common sense.

    Imagine what would happen in our world if tomorrow one out of every thousand deaths resulted in a zombie crawling its way out of a grave a week later. It wouldn’t take long before any investigation would reveal who the zombies had previously been.

    Note this would also have an effect on things like the Laws of War. Leaving corpses unattended would raise the risk of zombies roaming he countryside munching on anyone they could catch. Anyone who left a battlefield unattended would not have a great reputation with the locals.

    Next consider what happens in a world where spontaneous gifts (or curses) can appear in newborns. If children who have been affected by magic, glowing space rocks, or whatever fantastic element the fictional world has react poorly to silver, jade, or salt it would make sense for any ceremony to celebrate the birth of a new child to include those elements.

    From there, how do these things tie into the story? When there’s a death do neighbors bring any extra firewood they have to assist in the funeral? Do they bring incense or herbs to throw on the fire? When a new child is born does the family send food, offer help minding the child for the first few weeks, or do they send some salt? When an enemy is slain does the victor ensuring they receive a “proper” cremation show respect the same way ensuring someone’s body is returned to their family has done so in our world? (And would an honorable opponent make sure their enemy’s ashes return home?)

    One fantasy world I started to work on before the worldbuilding collapsed on me had family gardens or groves. The ashes of the dead were used as fertilizer for the plants or trees. (Mainly because the characters in that world didn’t realize that human remains that have been cremated don’t actually function as fertilizer.) Returning the ashes to the family garden was seen as a sign of respect. If you couldn’t send the ashes of someone to their family garden, well, you could lay them to rest in yours. (Which carried social implications..)

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I’m trying to make a world where folks don’t think about ‘what happens to you after you die’ in any kind of detail, because I tend to go way overboard in thinking on that and it’s a deliberately fluffy world without any gods (because I am sick to death of gods!)– and it’s amazingly hard to have real people do that.
    Even when I’ve got what amounts to a narrative field that makes, say, the fire-magic-user have a bigger temper, the elementals don’t like folks who betray their natures (and there are ‘corrupt elementals’ that can’t be used by normal people without corrupting them)–
    it’s really hard to have the important stuff in life without even these little rituals.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. How about daily life rituals? Do your people hurry past each other, no time to talk or greet each other big city style, or would that be a big faux pas that says foreigner here. Does the side you fold your clothes or knot your belt mean that you are dead, like in Japan? And in a fantasy land that might be literal, and people will kill the zombie that is trying to blend in. Things that Americans don’t necessarily think about, but in smaller towns and other cultures will mark you out as much or more then having a foreign face.

    Liked by 1 person

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