When writing in any era, the end of a life can take on various meanings, depending on the beliefs of the deceased individual. There may be an exotic afterlife to consider or particular funerary rites to adhere to. Tossing history into the mix brings with it layers of archaic ritual, older cultural boundaries and long-extinct practices. Therefore, this can be a complicated yet fascinating aspect of writing historical fiction.
West Kennet Long Barrow
photo: E Moxon
In my ‘Wolf Spear Saga’ series I must consider many factors in relation to the death of my characters. For my Germanic characters, they descend from a warrior line. Kings and tribal leaders would have received the ultimate in ornate burials with plenty of grave goods. If he is an experienced horseman, he may even be buried with his ‘noble steed’. However, in times of danger when there is little time to linger for fear of return attack, they might resort to a funeral pyre. This may be inevitable after battle if they have several dead warriors and limited time. Cremation was for centuries an acceptable form of funerary rite, even when some turned to Christianity. Grave goods have been found in Christian burials, despite not being a religion that encourages the placing of sacred objects with the body or cremation urn.
Religious beliefs come and go, evolving and overlapping throughout history. Forms of burial container exist in hundreds of designs that have beauty or function to carry the dead into whatever future they perceived lay before them. Some expected to be collected by fearless shield maidens who would deliver them to the feasting hall of a one-eyed war-god, in order to battle into eternity. Others would expect to meet other deceased relatives in a summer meadow, able to lead a fruitful, playful existence with their array of grave goods.
Snettisham Great Torc
Deaths of religious figures, such as priests and priestesses also vary depending on cultural and religious differences. Evidence has been found of herbs in Coptic jars and headdresses or pillows made from the leaves of plants considered to have magical powers. Essences in bottles and flower garlands worn as funerary adornments can hint at the importance of incense or plant oils accompanying those who possessed the ability to see the future or read the messages from scented fires. Embalming is a particular ritual that was perfected by the Egyptians, though is not restricted to their ancestral history alone.
photo: E Moxon
Finally, then there are the cultural rituals replete among warrior tribes and the elite among ancient peoples. The Welsh and Irish sagas abound with the ‘rites of passage of kings’, with several tales of fathers being brutally murdered by sons. This has a multitude of connotations, from disgruntled sons eager to remove fathers from thrones to the right of every warrior to die a noble death. To die ungracefully in one’s own bed would be a disgrace to many a brave king, but were a son to ‘send’ his father to a noble death via the sword, then the king’s reputation and warrior-status would remain intact. This act, a ‘rite of passage’ could send the king into his chosen afterlife.
Oseberg Ship Burial
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Do you consider the end of your characters' lives as much as their creation?
How much detail and thought do you employ when creating characters?
Has a character's death affected you when writing/reading it?