Episode 19: Funerals and Other Rituals in Fiction

On November 17, 2018 we discussed funerals and other rituals in fiction. Here are the show notes:


Dr. Kasie Whitener, Clemson Road Creative, fiction writer

Rex Hurst, fiction writer and English instructor

Theme for the day

Funerals and other rituals in fiction

trees in park
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com


  • Who we are and why we’re here; NaNoWriMo check in
  • The topic for the week: funerals and other rituals in fiction
  • Book discussion — currently reading and its analysis through the lens of the topic
  • Craft book discussion — The Fire in Fiction

Segment 1

So, how’s NaNoWriMo going?

I confessed last week that I’m very, very far behind. I’m writing every day, but not much on this work in progress. I still feel good about it, though. I have two weeks. I’ll catch up.


Funerals are on my mind. My Uncle Howard passed this week and yesterday we attended his service. I’ve been thinking through this life-well-lived thing, he certainly hard one of those, and this fight-the-good-fight thing, which he certainly did.

Last year I was working on revising the funeral scene for my GenX novel After December and decided to make a workshop out of that process. There’s shockingly little written in blogs or books about writing funeral scenes. What is written all seems to be pretty universal: Avoid Cliche.

So here’s some general writing advice that can and should apply to your funeral scenes:

  • Avoid Cliches — if it reads like a scene out of Beverly Hills 90210 then it’s also probably full of cliches.
  • Make it Unique — this is tough because funerals are rituals and there’s something familiar and comfortable about rituals.
  • Make it Matter — the funeral scene can’t be a cake topper. It has to have significance.

Segment 2

The same questions we ask about every scene:

What happens in this scene?

Does it have to happen to advance the plot?

Does it have to happen here and like this?

As with any scene in a novel, a funeral scene should be used to make some change to the story. What are some possible turning point things that could only happen at a funeral?

  • You realize the dead person isn’t who you thought it was
  • Someone you didn’t expect to mourn shows up and mourns
  • Someone you expected to mourn does not
  • The dignity of the proceedings is somehow compromised
  • A controversial “final wish” is either performed or ignored

Who dies?

There are any number of reasons for selecting which character you plan to kill. Usually, the death of a character is about compromising the protagonist in an irredeemable way: the best friend, the mother, the father, a sibling, a pet; usually a death in a novel is meant to damage the protagonist so that whatever he/she wants to achieve is compromised in some way.

  • It’s seen as selfish.
  • It’s seen as shallow.
  • It’s more difficult without the dead person’s help.
  • It means even more because the person is dead.
  • It’s now the only way to save the protagonist from the same fate as the dead person.

The question “who dies?” can determine whether the funeral is necessary. In all the Harry Potter books, someone dies. Nowhere did Harry attend a funeral. Is it because they don’t have funerals in that world? Or is it because J.K. Rowling cut the funeral scenes after realizing they wouldn’t advance the plot?

What do we say at a funeral?

Dialogue is hard enough without trivializing it with the cliché’s and expected sympathy of funeral speak. There are three categories of dialogue at a funeral:

  • Exposition – tell the reader something that puts the death into context, changes how the protagonist experiences the funeral, or deepens the meaning of the death.
  • Action – force a decision, a change, or an action at the funeral. Dialogue that requires a response, especially if that response breaks the dignity of the ritual.
  • Sympathy – sympathetic dialogue is the characters telling one another how sorry they are that the dead person is dead. This is the kind of trite dialogue we expect at a funeral. It’s what will get an editor to tell you to cut the scene all together.

Like anywhere else in the book, the dialogue at the funeral has to pop. Get In and Get Out as they say. The fewer words said, the more effect each word will have.

Focusing on the food: what does what they served tell us about the family? What does the focus on the food tell us about the character?

Segment 3

Other rituals in fiction

What other rituals are there in fiction? Weddings, baptisms, church going, school-going, first day of school, prom, graduation.

Why use a ritual in the story?

How does it contribute to the story?

What does it tell us about the people? The place?

Rituals can be a good way to familiarize your reader with some element of the book. For example, the character may have a coming-of-age experience and the ritual (bar mitzvah) associated with that could be revealing.

Rituals help us recognize time passing. When you jump forward from holiday to holiday, you can eclipse time by connecting important events (solstice celebrations, national holidays).

Rituals change people and circumstances. The other-side-of-the-ritual is an important advancement in the book.

Rituals raise the stakes. They change what’s expected of the person who undergoes the change and makes them responsible for new and bigger things.

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