Looking for an opportunity to reveal a character’s true feelings? Need a place where a character can realistically tell the world how they feel in a monologue? Want to give characters an opportunity to discuss what is coming next in your plot? Funerals provide an excellent setting for all these moments and more.
Funerals have been a common setting in literature for a long time.
Homer used the setting of a funeral pyre to build the drama of the Iliad after the death of Patroclus. In Hamlet, it is at a funeral scene that we get the classic line, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times …” Following the line, Hamlet’s fatal flaw is diagnosed by his friend.
And in his book This Town, Mark Leibovich uses the funeral of Tim Russert to establish the setting of his critique of the Washington political culture.
3 Powerful Funerary Moments
Funerals are a powerful setting because they bring characters who may not usually be together into the same location and allow those characters an opportunity to reflect on the past.
At funerals, a character’s feelings about past events are laid bare. Even if they aren’t spoken out loud, body language and small interactions give readers insight into how characters relate to one another.
At a funeral, emotions can run high and characters who are typically guarded have the opportunity to reveal their true motivations.
I worked as clergy for fifteen years. During that time, I officiated and attended a lot of funerals. Reflecting on those events, there are three moments in a funeral I think make great scenes in literature.
1. A Moment of Interaction: The Wake
Historically, wakes were prayer vigils held on a feast day of a patron saint. Today they are something very different. In the culture I was raised in, wakes happen at the funeral home. Typically the deceased person is present, laid out in his/her casket for mourners to see one last time. The immediate family of the deceased is also there to grieve with visitors.
Wakes are interesting settings because, after a visitor has seen the deceased, there isn’t much else to do except stand around and share stories about the past. Additionally, the presence of the deceased can bring stress to characters who aren’t used to being around a dead body, causing those characters to let their guard down and reveal things they may not usually share.
2. A Moment to Review: The Eulogy
During a funeral service, a member of the deceased’s family will stand in front of all the mourners and recap the life of the person who has passed. Typically, eulogies contain facts about the person’s life and details that the speaker believes are representative of the deceased.
This moment can serve not only as a way to reveal events you don’t want to cover directly in your story, it can also provide a grieving character the opportunity to share his/her true feelings.
Like Mark Antony’s moment in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which Antony verbally spears Caesar’s killer Brutus and gives us the famous line, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” the eulogy provides the excuse for characters to monologue and comment on the events of the story.
3. A Moment of Relief: After the Graveside
In many cultures, mourners will gather at the graveside for a final smaller service. Sometimes they will watch the casket lowered into the earth, sometimes they will leave before the casket is dropped. Often flowers are taken from the casket to be kept as mementos. Then, typically after a final prayer, everyone in attendance leaves.
The moment following the graveside service is one of release. As people walk back to their cars, the future is on their mind. With a temporary relief from grief, they will discuss future plans, how assets should be dispersed, or plans for next steps.
It’s a great opportunity to foreshadow what might come next. The scene provides an opportunity to reveal characters’ intentions and hopes.
Is a Funeral the Right Setting for Your Story?
Cormac McCarthy once said the only two subjects worth writing about are life and death. Funerals combine both. At a funeral, emotions are high, characters guards are down, and there isn’t a lot of characters to do except talk to one another about the past and the future.
Next time you are looking for a moment of reflection in your story, consider the setting of a funeral.
Is there a funeral in literature that stands out in your mind? Let us know about it in the comments. It may serve to inspire your fellow writers.