The rituals we live (and die) by and figuring out the rational.
World Building – The Rites of Life and Death
Week of March 5, 2004
NoticeThis workshop has moved to a two week schedule to allow those people writing novels to participate. Look for the next installment the week of March 19.
They are the calendars by which we live our lives. They help us celebrate our milestones and assist us in coming to terms with loss. They tie us together as families and societies, providing us with a sense of who we are. They can bind us to our god(s) and our faith. They enrich our lives in a hundred little ways. They are always there, yet we generally do not give them much thought. The rituals that we live by tell others a great deal about what is most important to us… they can even provide clues as to what we believe about what happens to us after we die.
Birth: What are the rituals that accompany the birth of a child in our society? The passing of cigars is an interesting one—if anyone knows the origins of this, let me know. Baptism is another one even though it usually happens a little later. Other religions have rites specific to their faith. Many birth rituals take place some time after the birth due to the fact that when the rites first became established there was a very good chance that the child would not survive very long after birth. Because birth rituals deepen the ties between the child and its family (and its community), delaying them until the baby’s survival was more certain was a way of helping to keep the pain of loss at arm’s length.
Birth rituals will vary a great deal between cultures. In a culture where births are rare, I would expect a great deal more ritual than in a culture where children arrive every day—in a manner of speaking. Of course the religious beliefs of your culture will play a large part in the structure and ceremony. The family unit will also be important. In a culture with extended families we could expect to find more family involvement with birth than in a culture with nuclear families. The level of development, the medical knowledge, and the technology available will also be significant factors. The way society values women, the role of the church, the type of government, even the climatic conditions will all play a part.
Also included here are birthdays. Is it important to your people that they celebrate the day of their birth and if so, why?
Passage into adulthood: Many cultures have rituals that usher young men and women from the world of childhood to that of being an adult. These rituals can involve tests to prove that the youth has the mental, physical and spiritual strength to accept their new responsibilities. A symbolic casting away of childhood possessions, some type of physical marking, ceremonies, celebrations, and religious blessings may be present as well.
Here again, a great many factors will influence the type of rite or celebration. In a culture where it is expected that young men and women will bring a dowry or other possessions into a marriage, the celebration of adulthood may include the bestowing of gifts to get that process started—consider the hope chest. In a warrior society there would likely be a series of tests to give the new adult the chance to prove that they are capable of protecting their people. Religious beliefs may call for blessings or a time of meditation and purification before vows are taken to god or the gods. The change in position from the consumer of the family’s labors to a contributor could be marked by anything from planting a tree to becoming engaged to a ritual hunt or even something as small as being given the family recipe for peanut butter cookies. In technologically advanced societies, the youth might be given their adult identification, be granted permission to learn to operate dangerous machinery, or be given access to adult only facilities. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. Learning to drive and being able to go into a bar were big deals when I was a lot younger.)
Marriage: All of the factors I have discussed above are going to influence the type of ceremony and rituals surround marriage. In many cultures it is important that the bride be a virgin, in others it could be desirable that the man and/or woman be reproductively sound. In this last case the marriage may not take place until after a child has been born to the prospective couple.
Do your people celebrate anniversaries? How? Are there some that are more important than others?
Do marriages end in divorce or other forms of dissolution? Are there rituals that accompany this? What are the rules and ceremonies? How are the divorced parties viewed by their society?
Retirement: Does your society revere its elders for their wisdom and experience? Are they included as part of an extended family? Are they considered to be a burden? Who sees to their care? Are they expected to relieve society of the burden of their care by committing ritual suicide? Is euthanasia practiced? At what age is a member of your society considered to be an elder? Is there a ritual that marks the passage from having to work to support the society to being taken care of by that society? Are the Elders considered to be the only people with enough knowledge to perform important tasks such as educating the children, or running the government? A great deal can be surmised about a society by the way they view and treat their elders.
Death: So much can be learned about a culture by the rituals they associate with death. Look at the ancient Egyptians. They mummified the dead so that the deceased person would have a useful body in the afterlife. They buried the person with the possessions that they would need once they crossed over. Amulets and objects of spiritual power were wrapped into the linen bandages, and spells were painted on the walls of the tomb to make sure that the deceased passed into their new life. Other cultures buried their warriors with horses and weapons. Some cultures burn the bodies of their dead so as to release their spirit into the ether. Others consume part of the deceased in the belief that the essence of that person will live on in the surviving members of the family or society. Some believe that the position of the body in the grave is important. All of these different ideas have serious roots in what the culture believes about the nature of life and death.
Do your people believe in an afterlife or do they believe that they just blink out like a light when they die? Consider the ramifications of believing that there is no life after death. How would these people treat the dead? They might consider the body as they would any dead animal, as a shell or husk, and recycle it or use it as fertilizer or some other practical purpose.
If the believe that they possess a spirit that lives on after the body dies, is their afterlife one of the spirit that needs no body or material goods, or do they believe that it is a physical one where they will need all their possessions? How do they get to the afterlife, and how is this reflected in their burial rituals? Are there different rituals for different classes of people, different occupations, for Kings or political people, or for the clergy?
Okay, so that is the part of death rites that deals with the person who died, but most of the rituals surrounding death are created to ease the suffering of the living. Consider the two questions above. How will the funeral rites be different in a society that believes in an afterlife and one that doesn’t? What would the loved ones of the deceased require to ease their suffering in the latter? After all, there is a great deal of solace to be found in the belief that the loved one still exists and is in a better place.
Does your society celebrate the life of the loved one with a party, or do they believe that solemnity and religious ritual is best? What support is there for the loved ones? Does the entire social circle of the family take part, or is it reserved just for the immediate loved ones? How do your people find solace when someone they love dies?
Wow, this has been a long one, but these are all rites that will give your world its flavor. The more detail you have on how people mark the important moments of their lives, the richer your culture will be.
This week’s challenge: Discover the rituals of at least one culture that is different than your own, and see if you can’t trace the parallels between the ritual and the beliefs from which they grow.
This week’s prompt for both novel and short story writers: Write two scenes of at least one thousand words that depict two different life or death rituals. They should be told in the form of a short story. If people get married or die or have babies in your book you will already have that scene done—that’s the upside. Include lots of detail—subtly of course—and flavor. Make the reader feel the emotion and circumstance.
As always, feel free to drop by my portfolio for the previous installments of the workshop and to see my examples. By Monday I should have my examples for all the previous prompts up. If you have any questions, email me.
Have a great week and have fun.