The OF Blog: Death thoughts

Monday, November 03, 2008

Death thoughts

Dead you will lie and never memory of you
will there be nor desire into the aftertime - for you do not share in the roses
of Pieria, but invisible too in Hades' house
you will go your way among dim shapes. Having been breathed out.

- Sappho (ca. 630 B.C.E.)
tr. by Anne Carson
Sunday was All Souls Day and at my parish, the Bishop of Nashville was celebrating the Mass. I remember quite well his homily that tied together this passage from the Book of Wisdom:

The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
For if before men, indeed, they be punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them
and found them worthy of himself.
It was such a hope-filled sermon, one that dealt not on the sorrows and grievances of the living, but rather on the peace of the dead. Rituals do serve a purpose and the Bishop pointed out that far from being "foolish," sacred rites and practices honoring the dead and the hope that their souls are at peace with God serve many high purposes, including a centering of our lives around the central mystery of the Christian faith.

There is something about death and how it is observed and attended to that has fascinated me for years. There is such a sudden break that appears to occur between the Living and the Formerly Living. People who cannot stand to be in the presence of a corpse, as if there is the threat of some profane desecration. Others will marvel at how the living deal with the unspoken, heavy presence of the dead in their memories and emotions. How did we come to create such a central ritual around the passage of a consciousness (or if you prefer, a life, since consciousness is debatable in some circles)? How have these rituals varied over time and space and how have they come to bear close relationships in many cases?

These are but few of the questions that occurred to me after I pondered the Bishop's homily. Another one that only is tangentially related is that of how are these intense private/public rituals surrounding Death ever going to be represented well in fiction, particularly speculative fiction? Does the skillful author create his/her own Death ritual, or are elements of various "real world" death rites borrowed wholesale for inclusion as warranted in spec fic novels? What is so powerful about Death that it stands out more than most anything related to Life? Is Thanatos truly stronger than Eros?

What do you think?


Elena said...

To address the question at the end: I think in spec. fiction, especially fantasy, the death rituals absolutely cannot be ignored or glossed over. The same with religion in general. Regardless of how someone's "modern" (read: atheistic/agnostic/non-defined spirituality) might render a specific religion into mythology or ridiculous antiquity, the fact remains that religion in general has been and remains to be a terribly important part of human life. Every culture, every time. And one of the biggest aspects of all the major religions, at least, has been demystifying death.

For my money, I think the better rituals in fiction are original, or an "evolution," if you will, of something that exists/existed on earth but isn't a direct lift. Taking something and shifting it in an equivalent manner to the pagan rituals being painted with Catholic saints, for example. With SF rather than fantasy I think religious/spiritual faith *can* be taken out as a projection of the current trend toward science at the expense of religion.

I guess how much any given story draws on the rituals the writer creates can vary quite a lot; some stories might not delve into death at all. I don't like an in-depth discussion of the religion just to throw in everything the writer thought about. I prefer hints or just a sentence or two in summary unless the ritual/faith is central to the story.

Barbara Martin said...

Death rituals are an important expression to people with an assocation of the corpse. For some it is a way of saying good-bye, and others an acknowledgment that the spark or soul has left and gone elsewhere.

With respect to writing about death I would think the author's personal experience and attitude about death, including the rituals surrounding it will have a bearing on the narrative.

The Christian aspect on the rituals is that there is life after death, and we, the living ought not fear that particular transformation.

Lsrry said...


So would you pretty much agree with the notion that fictionalized rituals could be closely akin to the real-world "cargo cults" that sprung up in Pacific Islander societies in the 19th and 20th centuries as a way to rationalize that which they did not fully grasp?


I agree. There is something about such rituals that means so much in so many different ways to people. I'd love it if there'd be a wake when I die, for example, but for another it might be totally different but still meaningful. For myself, the hope found in Christian/Catholic rituals is extremely meaningful, but that's just me speaking, I suppose...

Elena said...

ah, larry, you make me feel my ignorance--that's a compliment, it's part of why i come back :). because i have no idea what reference you are making. but to take off from the explanation of it being "a way to explain the unexplainable":

i think that is one of the (but certainly not the only) main purposes of religion. so to that end, you could say that every religious ritual has an element of explaining the unexplainable to it. but each ritual also has a goal unto itself, and for the death rituals that seems to go with what barbara was saying about closure, of acknowledging that wherever the soul has gone, it is no longer here in the same way it was before.

i was just trying to say that in my opinion it would be disingenuous for a writer to ignore the importance of religion--and one of its most important rituals, i.e., the death ritual--in a fictional society. Becaus to me the main point of speculative fiction is to explore the idea of "what if" people like us were in X situation that is not our own. so if you ignore one of the baselines of society that make us people like us, then you defeat yourself before you start.

but (for me, at least) it's also really boring and speaks of a lack of thought and/or creativity to read rituals that are exactly like rituals we have in our world. if you're asking what if already...why not also ask "what if they did THIS instead?"

maybe that made better sense. and maybe it was just a really long way of agreeing with your question. :)

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