With 2016 continuing to be the year of death, losing David Bowie, Prince, Harper Lee, Alan Rickman, Victoria Wood, Ronnie Corbett, Terry Wogan, Admiral Ackbar, and what seems to be the majority of the western hemisphere, death is the one thing that all societies have to deal with (unless your society is one of omnipotent immortals, à la Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time, naturally).
How they view death in a philosophical sense, and how they deal with the practical side, can vary wildly, and can also tell us a great deal about the kind of society we are dealing with. Is death something to be feared, or something to embrace? Is a funeral a solemn ceremony, a cheerful celebration of a life, or a clinical procedure? Let’s take a look.
Example: Garland hated funerals. The chanting, the incense, the gilded bloody everything. Those ridiculous mourners purchased from the city square. The six-course feast was the only redeeming feature, and even that was more for show than for practicality; most of it would end up being thrown out. Typical of the old bat. That and the amount of money spent on frescoes, carvings and statues for her marble tomb – as if she could even see them from whatever hell she was currently residing in. The family would have to keep paying through the nose to guard the thing from graverobbers. Still, at least she was gone.
Here we can see a society where a person’s funeral is a status symbol. The more important a person or family is (or at least, the more important they believe themselves to be), the more lavish their funeral arrangements will be. We can see how this makes lucrative work for professional mourners, and how wasteful it can be when it comes to the food that is prepared and the artworks that are commissioned only to be locked away.
We can also see a fairly definite belief in an afterlife (in fact, multiple afterlives), or at the very least the vestigial remnants of belief in an afterlife. This is a religious ceremony with much pomp and circumstance. It tells us that there is a strong class system where the wealthy and important are preoccupied with looking the part, however impractical and expensive it may be.
But that needn’t be the case. Consider a society with scarce resources, else one where class and spirituality aren’t afforded as much importance as Garland’s. Would they have similar attitudes toward funerals and death?
Example: Helen flipped the switch on the recycler. Her mother’s body should at least be worth the disposal fee. There’d be enough reclaimed carbon and nitrogen. The calcium would be useful too. Most of it was more likely to go through the bio-scrubbers for fertiliser. Just as well, really. They needed all the help they could get up there.
This society is clearly one with limited resources, and a much more practical attitude towards death. There appears not to be much in the way of sentimentality or squeamishness regarding the disposal of human remains; they simply recycle whatever they need and use the rest as much-needed fertiliser.
There is no mention here of religion or spirituality; no indication that the society believes in a soul or an afterlife. There is simply the matter of the resources available, and what to do with them.
How might your society deal with death and the disposal of bodies? Do they have beliefs about the nature of death which may inform their opinion of it, or do they see it simply as a clinical process? How do they conduct funerals (if they do at all)? And what happens to the body?