Death, Taxes, and Cultural Expression

Wayuu funeral jars.A few weeks ago, there was a bit of a kerfuffle on social media when a professor published this gratingly smug ‘open letter‘ suggesting that students who did not perform ‘real grief’  to her satisfaction was clearly lying.  While this letter was intended as satire, it does highlight an issue which rears its head regularly in our multicultural world: people grieve differently.

Setting aside the obvious fact that different individual humans process and express their feelings differently (after all, we have different neurotypes, personalities, life experiences, and so on), different cultures have different ideas about death and mourning, and what constitutes a ‘normal’ emotional response to tragedy.

If your story includes character death in any capacity, it’s worth doing some research or careful worldbuilding development on how people in your setting handle death and mourning.  Here are some questions to consider during your worldbuilding process:

  • What beliefs or beliefs about the afterlife, if any, exist in your setting?
  • Are there specific rituals associated with these beliefs, and what are they?
  • Who participates in these rituals, and what are their roles?
  • How do people feel about death in general? (Are they fearful, accepting, etc?) Does this vary based on how the person died?
  • Outside of funeral or mourning rituals, what is seen as a ‘proper’ or ‘expected’ expression of grief in your setting?

Like all worldbuilding, really understanding how your culture views death and mourning can open up all kinds of opportunities for both plot points and character development.  If you’re writing a culture from scratch, it might be worth taking an in-depth look at at real-life cultures that are similar to the cultures in your setting. Also remember that your setting should be internally cohesive, so make sure the beliefs and rituals in your setting make sense in the broader context of their fictional cultures. (If you’re writing about a real-life culture, past or present, then it’s research time– no internal consistency worries required. That said, be sure to vet your sources!).



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