What We Can Learn from the Funerals in "Game of Thrones"

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By Amy Cunningham

With funeral options like earth-friendly burial in simple shroud or biodegradable casket, family-witnessed cremation, and full body sea submersion drawing more interest than ever, it's a good time to notice that the end-of-life rituals in HBO's epic fantasy drama "Game of Thrones" are culturally connected. Not since "Six Feet Under," has a TV show startled and electrified us with such fabulous funeral services. From high church to home-spun, these Celtic-y/Viking-ish pagan spectacles (that sometimes smack of a Greek/East Asian/ Mongolian influence) will affect the future funeral planning decisions of Americans now under the age of 30. To distill the wisdom in GOT's finest send-offs (spoilers ahead!), my 20-year-old son Gordon Waldman has kindly come to my assistance. So many deaths occurred in the first six seasons that Slate magazine tracked them. Here's what we might glean--

1. Grief is real and long lasting. It can drive you in strange and marvelous directions. Many main characters in the show are fueled by the emotions caused by loss. Cersei Lannister is basically driven to madness over the deaths of her children, while Arya Stark seeks gruesome revenge against those who murdered her family.

2. Bodies are important. The phrase "bring out your dead" seems operative. Death is not a medical event, it's a community experience, whether it's the head of Ned Stark on a pike or yet another formal visitation with viewing in King's Landing. I too want a golden burial shroud and loads of votive candles!

3. It's nice to have the support of a hospice worker, death doula or home funeral guide to help you bathe and groom the deceased person's body soon after death. I'm impressed with the work of the Silent Sisters (the death midwifes of the Seven Kingdoms who collect, bathe, and shroud the dead). They remind me of my saintly sisters in the National Home Funeral Alliance, though we are far from silent at the moment.

4. Rituals employing one of the elements--fire, water, earth, air--help grieving families process the loss. The countless cremations conducted by the Night's Watch are contrasted with the epic sea burials used by House Greyjoy. All are transformative.

5. The more you involve yourself with the care of the dead and the funeral itself, the more you might help yourself heal. There have been too many pyre lightings to mention, but the lesson seems to be--get in there, don't hold back, participate in the funeral and heal.

6. It is best not to make large demands of other family members at the time of the funeral. Jaimie and Cersei break this rule far too much, and have their most bizarre exchanges in front of the bier.

7. Stay flexible. Funerals aren't supposed to be perfect, and sometimes you have to change plans on a dime. Season six finale (spoiler alert!) shows Cersei spontaneously selecting cremation instead of entombment for her newly deceased son Tommen since, in a complex twist of fate, she's just blown up their version of Westminster Abbey, where every other dead relative, up to then, had been placed in crypts.

8. Hang in there, get support. As Daenerys learned after her Dothraki husband's cremation, you never "get over" the death of someone close to you. But you will, in time, "get with" the loss and walk on with it. You might even hatch three dragons!

 

Want something different? Why not order a handcrafted casket or make one yourself? A funeral can be just as imaginative and important as a wedding and, much to the surprise of some "Game of Thrones" characters, a funeral can turn out a lot better.

Want something different? Why not order a handcrafted casket or make one yourself? A funeral can be just as imaginative and important as a wedding and, much to the surprise of some "Game of Thrones" characters, a funeral can turn out a lot better.

Non-consensual incestuous sex in front of the kids is a horrible crime, but sex of any kind in front of your kids when they are dead seems almost as bad.

Non-consensual incestuous sex in front of the kids is a horrible crime, but sex of any kind in front of your kids when they are dead seems almost as bad.

The difficult-to-love Baylon Grayjoy had a stunningly gorgeous sea burial, one of my personal favorites. "Feed the creatures of your kingdom on his flesh. Pull his bones down to your depths to rest beside his ancestors and his children."

The difficult-to-love Baylon Grayjoy had a stunningly gorgeous sea burial, one of my personal favorites. "Feed the creatures of your kingdom on his flesh. Pull his bones down to your depths to rest beside his ancestors and his children."

Service for one: With tears in his eyes, a dutiful and beleaguered Jon Snow lights his lover Ygritte's pyre.

Service for one: With tears in his eyes, a dutiful and beleaguered Jon Snow lights his lover Ygritte's pyre.

Seasons of grieving: Take your time, cycle through, marinate in any death that is sudden or completely unexpected.

Seasons of grieving: Take your time, cycle through, marinate in any death that is sudden or completely unexpected.

Nice idea: the Silent Sisters hand delivered Eddard "Ned" Stark's remains to a tented residence. (Why should grieving families return to the funeral home to collect the urn of cremated remains? People often appreciate it when funeral directors deliver.)

Nice idea: the Silent Sisters hand delivered Eddard "Ned" Stark's remains to a tented residence. (Why should grieving families return to the funeral home to collect the urn of cremated remains? People often appreciate it when funeral directors deliver.)

Hang in there. Stay present. Take a risk. Something larger than yourself will hatch before too much more time passes.

Hang in there. Stay present. Take a risk. Something larger than yourself will hatch before too much more time passes.

Families may maintain their assumptions and grudges, but everyone will band together if the end-of-life ritual is sufficiently powerful (even when your late father's brother is a better shot, and way cooler than you are).

The cremation of Maester Aemon required four people to light each corner of the twiggy pyre. "He was the blood of the Dragon, but now his fire has gone out." The memorable funeral service starts 90 seconds into this Youtube.com video.

Amy Cunningham