Culture and the Dead and Dying

The City of the Dead, Osseti, Russia

Life and death are the only two real facts in our world. You were born, and you will die. The same can be said for your characters, unless they’re immortal (but even then, immortality usually implies they won’t die of old age or disease, and nothing about being killed). My culture views death negatively; we don’t even like to say the word. We call it “buying the farm” or “biting the dust” and when someone dies, we have elaborate rituals to honor the passing and give solace to the still living. Not all cultures treat death this way though, and I remember the first time I realized this. I was reading a short story several years ago that detailed an old Eskimo grandmother walking out into a snowstorm one afternoon. The family did not react, but they all knew where she was going, and the story, written from the perspective of a young girl, revealed that the grandmother had known it was her time, and had gone out to embrace the passing as was their tradition. It wasn’t sad, it was just a fact of life.

I’m at a point in my novel that I’m looking at the death of a semi-main character. Her name is Nellana, and she is the High Priestess of the mainstream religious order in the northern lands. She’s also my protagonist’s grandmother and a much-loved woman. She leaves her home in the heat of spring to help in the south where an epidemic is spreading and within days of arriving is captured by native officials, who do not view her kindly. Eventually she is burned at the stake as a witch, something that is viewed as not only hostile but also heinous by Nellana’s own people.

Nellana’s family will have nothing left of her physical body when the flames burn down, but there are still rituals to be performed. But what they are I cannot say because I have not taken the time to decide what kind of death rites honorable priestesses might receive. I also haven’t given any thought to how her body being so desecrated might change their usual ceremonies. Thus, let’s look at some different beliefs and traditions related to the dead.


What are some of the different death and burial rites?

  • In the Tana Toraja region of Indonesia, burial ceremonies are large and costly events. Most families don’t have the money immediately ready for the ceremony, so it is acceptable for them to keep the newly deceased in their home while they save up, which can take anywhere from a few days to years. The dead are treated like sick elders, included in daily activates and conversations.
  • The Sokushinbutsu Buddhist monks have an interesting take on death that’s called self-mummification. The process is started several years before the planned death with a strict regiment designed to eliminate body fat and fluids. The first step consists of rigorous physical activity and eating only nuts and fruits. The second step includes bouts of vomiting and drinking a poisonous tea to prevent insects from taking up residence. When the monk is deemed ready, he then enters a stone tomb to sit in the lotus position and wait for death. Each day, he rings a bell to let his fellow monks know he is still alive. When the day comes that there is no bell, the monks seal the tomb for 1,000 days, before re-opening it to confirm the mummification.
  • Santhara is the Indian rite of fasting to death, and usually takes around 13 days. This rite is usually begun when a person feels their life has run its course and they are no longer needed, so it’s generally frowned upon as a form of suicide.
  • A tower of silence

    Zoroastrians believe burying or burning the dead will pollute the earth and fire elements, so instead they take their dead to a raised structure generically referred to as the Tower of Silence. This practice only exists in the Indian subcontinent now, as the dwindling number of vultures in India makes the process more gruesome and drawn out.

  • In the isolated Gizel Valley in Northern Ossetia, Russia, in the early 18th century, a plague swept through the land. There were so many sick that the clans built quarantine houses for them, where they were provided food and water, but kept under lock and key. Inside these slanted-roof huts are the mummified bodies of those who did not survive, dressed in their Sunday best with their hair neatly done.
  • All across northern Europe you can find murky bogs that claimed the lives of hundreds of travelers. But some people were buried there on purpose. The chemical makeup of the bogs actually preserves human flesh rather well, making this another form of mummification.

How are they remembered when they’re gone?

  • An America-based company called LifeGem now offers grieving family members the option to wear their lost ones in the form of a diamond ring. The diamond is synthesized from the carbon of the body or cremated remains. You can also memorialize your pets this way.
  • The Terracota Army

    The First Emperor of China was buried with all his treasures in a tomb with pearl-laden ceilings to represent the cosmos, and channels dug into the ground with flowing mercury to represent the rivers of China. The most fascinating part of the tomb however, are the 8,000 individual life-like and life-size statues of soldiers popularly known as the Terracota Army. Local farmers in Xi’an discovered the vast underground tomb in 1974 while they were drilling for water.

  • The Capuchin monks in Palermo, Italy mummified the bodies of the dead, dressed them in everyday clothes and put them on display, hanging them on the monastery walls. Apparently it was quiet the status symbol to end up on the wall, because important citizens would leave instructions to have their clothes changed on a regular basis to keep up with the latest fashion. This practice lasted up into the late 1800’s, and when the last mummy was placed on the wall there were at least 8,000.
  • The Malagasy from Madagascar actually take their dead from their tombs every seven years to dance with them in a ritual called Famadihana. It is considered a family reunion.
  • In some Chinese regions, death is like a rite of passage and a man’s honor and prestige are linked directly with the number of people who attend his funeral. So living family members would invite strippers to swell the numbers.
  • The Vikings sent their warriors out to sea in great long ships, placing things like weapons and treasure around them.  Once loaded down, the long ships were sunk in a harbor or burned on the water—this one being the source of the fabled Viking funeral pyre.

What are some of the different common understandings of death?

  • In the Victorian era, all the clocks in the room where a person died would be stopped to prevent bad luck.
  • The Victorians also photographed their dead because it was usually too expensive to document one’s life in photographs.
  • Aboriginal people will not show a deceased person’s image or use his/her name, for fear that either might invoke the spirit to come back.
  • Many Native American tribes believe that the spirit never dies, and so when the physical body no longer lives, they associate the spirit with an animal or a plant.
  • The ancient Chinese buried their leaders in suits made of jade.
  • Some cultures leave their dead out in the wild to be consumed by other animals. In Tibet, this is called a “sky death” and it is believed that those who are eaten by dogs will be better off in the next life.
  • In some African tribes, it’s a common practice to tie the mouth shut for fear of the spirit escaping, and/or to prevent hovering evil spirits from entering the body.

Top 5 Weirdest

  • A cryonic container

    Cryonics is the practice of freezing the body, and right now is only legal when done on a personal pronounced clinically dead. Shortly after death, the body is stored in liquid nitrogen to prevent decay and then frozen. The idea is that someday science will find a way to reverse death.

  • Plastination is a relatively controversial preservation method developed by German scientist Gunther von Hagens. The process involves dissecting the body into smaller parts, embalming it with a hardening fluid and then reposing the body parts into an educational pose.
  • You can now have your ashes launched into space to permanently orbit around the earth, like Gene Roddenberry’s were. Although, there are still flaws with this burial method. The orbit of the capsule containing Roddenberry’s remains and those of 22 others deteriorated just five years being launched and disintegrated in the atmosphere.
  • A Swedish company called Promessa offers the option of completely breaking down the body and burying it in a cornstarch urn, making for a completely bio-degradable burial.
  • Soap people—yes, soap people. Some actually turn into soap when they die, usually because of large deposits of fat during the time of death.

These are just a few of the death customs I found while researching, and I’m curious if anyone is aware of any others we can add to the list.


10 thoughts on “Culture and the Dead and Dying

  1. Interesting. I know middle eastern people will wail and put ashes on their bodies. Seems to be an old ritual. Its recorded in the Bible. Often wondered where it came from. It can be tricky putting a death scene in a story. Its such a personal thing. If not handled right, I think it may come off contrived. I inject my own experiences with death in there. These are the reactions of a westerner, but I think some things are universal. Nice Post, Whitney!

  2. Dear Whitney,

    I’m starting a new tradition. I am going to personally deliver my body to a spot far out at sea where it will be consumed by the creatures of the ocean. The purpose of this is twofold; firstly, to deny the HMO’s and CNA’s and funeral homes (all modern day vultures) any of my remaining money, which will be handed down to my son, a far more deserving recipient and, secondly, it is to deny god’s pets the meal they so impolitely expect.

    Nice post. Informative and interesting. Good luck with writing the rituals.



    • Doug, there’s something simplistic and poetic about what you described, and I really like the notion. Human culture complicates things to the point of madness, but shouldn’t something as natural as death be uncomplicated?

  3. Way-cool information. Studying history and cultures is definitely very helpful in making up your own culture in a fantasy novel. I’m bookmarking this for future use.

  4. As a little add-on: in Mexico and many other Latin-American countries there is the Day of the Dead, two days dedicated of going to the cementary to eat with the deceased and let the children play between the graves.
    On the other hand, the ship verion of the vikings was only possible for kings, since wood was a bit scarce in the northern part of Europe (it was difficult to get and foresting was not as popular as you may think), creatin the need of graves in forms of ships. The burning was thus reserved only to VERY important people.
    Very interesting post, loved it!

    • Thanks for the add on, I hadn’t found that one in any of the research I did for this post. And now that you mention wood being scarce for the Viking funeral, I think you are right. After all, the burning of a long ship would be rather costly. Thanks for the additional information!

  5. Pingback: How to Write a Death Scene | Invisible Ink

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