With even more celebrity deaths in the news since I wrote my last piece claiming that 2016 was the year of death, the year seems determined to prove me right with the deaths of Muhammad Ali, Kenny Baker, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Ron Glass, Andrew Sachs, John Glenn, Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Michael and sanity. That being the case, it’s time to look at another aspect of death that has a profound effect on the fictional society that you’re creating: the afterlife.
Every society has some view of what happens after death – whether that includes some kind of afterlife, or simply a nothingness – and that belief can have a profound effect on how people behave. A well-defined belief in an afterlife can add depth to your world, and define the shape that your society takes.
In the real world, ideas about what happens in the afterlife are created by the society that believes in them, and you will often see parallels of what a given society values in life being honoured in death. Norse mythology, for instance, claims that those dying in battle will feast with other fallen heroes in Valhalla, as reflecting their martial culture. In fiction, we see similar claims that warriors will be honoured in the Klingon afterlife of Sto’Vo’Kor. In contrast, Egyptian mythology has the deceased’s heart weighed against truth and justice, ensuring only those who had not committed sins including theft, violence, adultery, etc. would find their place in the afterlife. A common theme here is the idea of “judgement”, where only those who had lived a life in accordance with society’s expectations would take their place in paradise, while those that hadn’t would be condemned to torment instead.
Yanna’s eyes opened, and she stared up at the cloudless sky. What had happened? The last thing she remembered was the earthquake. The walls starting to crumble as she… oh no. Was that it? Had she died?
She sat up, increasingly conscious of the lack of hard surface beneath her. The endless, silvery waters. She was dead. She was here, in Xias.
She hadn’t even believed that it existed. If she had, she would have…
The waters swirled and bubbled around her. Yanna took an involuntary step back as the mighty, gleaming white ship rose from the water in front of her. No hands clawing at her ankles to drag her beneath the water. At least that was something.
She sighed as she climbed the net on the ship’s side, and again as she surveyed the ship’s empty deck. Of course it was empty. Why wouldn’t it be?
All the Oarsmen, one for each of the people she had helped in the last year, were absent. Of course they were. Yanna hadn’t believed. She hadn’t thought it was important.
She walked to the nearest oar and gave it a heave. The ship might have moved slightly. Too little to tell. The haul on the oar on the other side produced similarly minimal movement. It would take centuries to get to the Isle of Pleasures at this rate. She’d better make a start.
Here we can see an afterlife which is dependent on the idea of helping others. Someone like Yanna, who hadn’t regarded helping people as being important, now faces a long, purgatory-like struggle before she will reach the Isle of Pleasures.
But it seems she will reach it. While she hasn’t helped anyone, and seemingly must atone for it by spending centuries inching towards the afterlife alone, she has been spared the alternative reserved for truly bad people; to be dragged under the water to some horrible fate.
Most importantly here, is that this particular afterlife seems to be real, and it is the afterlife which has informed the customs and beliefs of the civilisation, rather than the other way round. In fantasy in particular there can easily be a distinction here between supernatural beliefs which are true and which are false, as well as varying degrees of belief (as we can see from the Yanna example above).
But regardless of whether or not they exist, it it the people’s perception of their afterlife which influences how they act and how their cultures develop. In Yanna’s case, the culture will likely be replete with good deeds and acts of charity. In the case of the Vikings/Klingons above, we see a willingness to die in glorious battle, safe in the knowledge that they will be rewarded. To use another Star Trek example, the Ferengi obsession with profit and material possessions feeds into their beliefs about the afterlife, where they enter the Divine Treasury and use their accumulated wealth to bid for their next life.
Do your fictional societies have a belief about what happens when they die? How does that influence how they act during their lifetimes? Does everyone believe the same thing, or do some differ, and might this cause any tensions?