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This modern country has strong democratic institutions, and leans toward extreme religious conservatism.

The state religion is omnipresent in culture, and has a major influence on the laws passed by government. One way in which this is visible is in the criminal justice system: the state doesn't believe in long prison sentences. It is expensive to maintain in the long term, and considered a waste of resources. Prison is for people who can be rehabilitated, and the maximum time would usually be about 20 years. Serial offenders, or those who have committed heinous crimes, are sentenced to death.

According to religioua tradition, the gods have decreed that The method of execution is always burning at the stake, in which a person is tied to a stake of wood and then immolated. Executions are treated as a ritual, and can only be done at a particular point in time, which is the last month of the year. Any day can be chosen, so long as it is in that timeframe. Executions make no distinctions between the sexes, and are done publicly. In extemely rare cases, even children are subjected to this. The practice is enforced regardless of when the person was sentenced. While culture demands this, most religious traditions are rooted in logical and sensible reasons, such as not eating pork to prevent sickness. This original purpose is long forgotten, but the ritual has remained over the generations. What practical reason would there be for prevent burning at the stake for the rest of the year, except in the last month?

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    $\begingroup$ Could you explain what would constitute a good answer? It is quite easy to think of a reason (here are a couple: religion, superstition, minimizing the time you have to pay because you employ an executioner, coldest month = bodies do not decay as fast), so it isn't clear why you are asking at all - what kind of trouble did you run into? Why did you exclude the obvious answers? What do you expect from an answer? $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Nov 23 '17 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ Because it usually rains the rest of the year? Or snows... $\endgroup$ – nzaman Nov 23 '17 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ The months of the year each have a God that it represent and only 1 God can accept the sacrifices. $\endgroup$ – A. C. A. C. Nov 23 '17 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ In a religious state, what other reasons do you need for anything besides "My God Said So"? $\endgroup$ – Xenocacia Nov 24 '17 at 4:13
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    $\begingroup$ If you would change the burning to the last month of a year (December) you would have a great reason: The sins of the previous year must not taint the new year, therefore all evil must be extinguished before the year ends. This would only give a hard end time though. $\endgroup$ – problemofficer Nov 24 '17 at 9:34

21 Answers 21

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  • The march of the prisoners is an awfully impressive sight and the more prisoners that are involved the more impressive it is. Everybody loves to thow tomatoes at the justifiably cancerous legions (or is that lesion?) of criminals (politely identified by their neighbors) so it's huge political points to make a show of it. Besides, Minister Oggula wrote that awful overture that, frankly, the President doesn't want to hear more than once each year (it makes his dogs howl).

  • Burning flesh stinks and neighbors of the execution yard don't appreciate it. Getting everything over with quickly is a plus for those voters.

  • People prefer life over death and so, while religiously sanctioned, the general populace still doesn't like all those deaths. Remember what people think Joseph Stalin once said, "one death is a tragedy, a thousand deaths is a statistic." Once again, ripping off the band-aid helps keep voters content.

  • It just isn't salubrious there's a whole lot of negative religious juju involved with not executing people at the proper time. Crops will die, rivers will turn to blood, babies will be born with nine fingers... right? Let's just avoid the possibility and do it when the Priests say it's best.

  • Welfare is not us because the government's no more into welfare than it is into lifetime sentences. Thus, clean-up is a full-time job for the shortest possible period.

  • Death isn't cheap and that's why good religious conservatives approve of the economy of scale. It even has a side-effect of a cottage industry developing leaner, faster, cheaper ways of mass stake burnings (did you notice the potential of the natural-gas-fueled WitchAway105? It can off an auspicious 11 criminals an hour!).

  • We definitely don't want body ash during the growing season because 9 out of 10 scientists tell us that body ash will get into the aquifer and our food supply causing our children to grow 11 toes.

  • The prevailing westerlies are bad at other times of the year and we definitely don't want to dump our ash over the holy site of Rashka (it takes a dozen priests a month just to ceremonially cleanse the place) and we really definitely don't want to dump the ash over our neighbors to the east because they've told us twice already that they'll open up a can of whoopA if we ever do it again and considering they have a million-man army maybe it's religiously prudent not to test their patience.

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  • $\begingroup$ I Thought stalin made that quote about death and statistics? $\endgroup$ – user32862 Nov 23 '17 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Shardmartin, Good catch and corrected, but even the Russians doubt that Stalin actually said it. It may have originated from a novel. Imagine that! $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 23 '17 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ The "The prevailing westerlies are bad at other times of the year" part made me lol so hard ... genious ! 10/10 ... Also i have a question who are you referencing with Minister Oggula? $\endgroup$ – Kaotis Nov 27 '17 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Kaotis, he's merely a figment of my imagination used to "tell a story" as I give insight into my reasons. Why execute the prisoners at but one time of the year? Because someone important created marching music that someone else important absolutely hates... but he can't stop it being played. He can regulate how often it's played, though! Hence, once each year. A playful bit of illogical logic on the separation of church and state theme. I invented the minister to express the idea. $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 27 '17 at 15:04
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Roman religion had prescription on fas and nefas, in other words which was appreciated by the gods and which wasn't. If your religion has something similar, it sounds logic to limit execution only to nefas times.

In this way there would be the enforcing messages that god/gods disapprove the behavior of those being executed on that time of the year.

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A very pragmatic answer that assume that it's outdoor burning:

The weather of this country is very peculiar.

Half of the year, there is very heavy rain (monsoun), or wind.
Other times, the temperature is very high (like 50 C° at noon), which makes it very uncomfortable to assist the execution.

Basically, there is only a 2 month period that is correct, but because seasons never are 'perfect', they reduce it to a one month period that has the perfect weather for having fun with your family.

I don't know if this kind of weather exists on our earth. But it does not seem too impossible.

A lot of people go with the 'religious option', but from my point of view, it just postpones the question.

Religions might seems 'dumb' and 'random' today (not my personal opinion), but they weren't when they started.

All religious traditions, and more importantly religious interdictions, were a way to educate people that were too dumb to understand why they should act this way.

So if there is a religious reason why the burning is only allowed at a time period, you still need a reason why there is a religious reason... of course this reason can be forgotten, and this allows a full arc for the story (some people trying to understand/remember why there is this religious reason).

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The first month of every year is their religious festival: their religion requires human sacrifices and the prison system is where they source them from. So those who are sentenced to death are given to the priesthood to sacrifice.

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If it's a fictional country (which I believe it is) I would go for the following reasons:

  1. Religion forbids the shedding of blood except for that time frame

  2. Political reasons (elections, debates and alike) were if the execution could be used as a bargain chip.

  3. It's broadcasted as an event to the whole country... imagine the Hunger Games, Death Race, etc.

If it's a real country I would believe (as the most rational reason) a mix of religion and political reasons maintain it in that month. Also if this is the case this question should be asked in another place.

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The timing of important events of such impactful nature on a society quite often takes the movements of the Sun and/or Moon into account. If the beginning of the year is in early January (Sun in tropical Capricorn), tax collection may coincide with the new moon.

However, the burning of people at that time might be a sacrifice to Saturn perhaps at the new moon or full moon or when the Moon is in Aries. Mars is exalted in Capricorn, and the burning of wood and/or carbon could be a timely action to inflict pain and horror on those who themselves have caused pain onto others via their Mars or Saturn archetypes (both considered malefic in medieval astrology). This approach of 'like for like' might be deemed suitable and effective by a conservative religious society.

Somewhat related, in biodynamic farming/gardening, 'peppering' refers to the ash produced from burning weed seeds as a method of pest control; the ashes are then sprinkled over affected areas to dis-incentivise the growth of such type of weeds. This is also done for undesired insects. Maria Thun hypothesised the effectiveness of this method as being a message to the gods responsible for sending the pest to stop sending those harmful creatures to the affected areas. It could just be that the chemical ambience changes with the effect of reducing the attractiveness of the area to those weeds/insects. In terms of humans and societies at large ruled by religious conservatism, the month January (in the northern hemisphere) may be an effective time to assert authority for some of those reasons, which deserve further investigation.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding Sven! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Nov 24 '17 at 12:00
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Ash actually makes a good fertilizer, it could be in demand at the start of the growing season, or just before it. It made sense to align the "burning season" with whatever time the agriculture needed it's byproduct. Then it became a lasting tradition long before synthetic fertilizers were invented.

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The god of justice and accountancy is one of the senior members of this highly administrative pantheon. During the month long festival of the god, in the build up to the new year, judgements are handed down, executions are carried out, pardons are issued.

This is the time when the society cleans its books and prepares to start the new year with a clean slate. No prisoner may remain awaiting judgement after this festival, they must be sentenced, executed, or released.

Accounts are also tallied up for the year and tax paid.

The crops have been harvested, the trees are dying back for the winter. It's coppicing season, there's plenty of cut wood around. If you have woodland you can pay your taxes in wood, which will then be used for the executions. With the ash then spread on the fields as fertiliser for the new growing season.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer; there is something neat and tidy about it. $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Dec 1 '17 at 17:50
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Pragmatism - an execution is an expensive undertaking of it is attended to in anywhere near the detail that western democracies do. You can stock up on the drugs and handle them assembly line style, working through dozens for close to the same cost as a single execution.

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There are some benevolent aliens that maintain limited trade with the country. They commemorate their arrival to the planet every year with a traditional cooking of some human meat. Since they don't really enjoy human meat, they don't care for it the rest of the year, but during preparations for the holiday feast, they are willing to give some valuable (to natives) unobtainium in exchange for some fresh bodies.

And since death row convicts ain't gonna provide anything else for the society, they can at least provide some unobtainium in death. It's not that something prevents execution at other time of the year, but it's just a waste of perfectly good corpses.

P.S.: Of course, the question never stated that the country is populated by humans as opposed to, say, turkeys.

Edit: Since the method of death was fixed to burning at a stake, you can replace "meat" with "roasted bones". Typical burning at a stake, as opposed to proper cremation, should leave plenty of bone marrow.

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Highly seasonal labor requirements

A place that has very different lifestyles in different seasons will get traditions linked to particular dates, because it makes a practical difference.

For example, assume a place that's food-limited (most pre-industrial societies are) with a climate where half of the year is "growing" season with really a lot of labor required; and half of the year is spent essentially idle due to weather conditions that prohibit all outdoors work.

In such a society, if you convict a murderer, it'd be practical to have them doing hard labor throughout the growing season, and then execute them all after harvest so that you don't have to feed them in the winter.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why would a convicted criminal who knows he will be executed at some point bother to cooperate in the growing season ? $\endgroup$ – user32862 Nov 24 '17 at 12:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Shardmartin You could torture them if they don't cooperate. Better to work and die at an execution with a possible chance to escape than to be tortured for a long time until you are executed. $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Nov 24 '17 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Shardmartin experience from the darker pages of our history that includes all kinds of labor/death camps in various countries shows that most people will do all kinds of ordeals just to postpone an inevitable death. Heck, even digging your own grave isn't just a movie cliche, it has been documented many times in the mass executions of the last 100 years, and people in general have cooperated instead of refusing to dig a pit for their own death. Also, hope works wonders. Promising to leave one of all the condemned alive until next year would be sufficient to motivate everyone. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Nov 25 '17 at 0:03
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Human Sacrifice. It's a very religious people and their religion demands fire sacrifices to their gods and these sacrifices must be done at the adequate dates. The criminals are immolated to the gods of the underworld, like Hades, to bring the wealth and power of the Underworld, like riches and secret knowledge. The majority of the population follows that religion so they are embedded in their constitution, their laws, and no politician would dare change it lest he finds himself impeached or immolated to Hades due to corruption charges.

There could be sacrifices to other gods but they wouldn't be immolations, but food and wine, animals, and the like. The humans are to be burned in the month of Capricorn due to underworld, hadean, aspects of capricorn, which is cold and dry, earthly, and earth is the domain of Hades, the fire of the Underworld, where there is gold and secret knowledge.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding Geronimo! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Nov 24 '17 at 11:57
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A spiritual reason could easily be behind this. In todays world, the Catholic people believe in purgatory and an alteration of these beliefs could be used to justify this. Purgatory (short version) is the final purification of those who die in friendship with God but who haven’t fully broken their attachment to sin or atoned for wrongs done in this life. Sinners (your criminals) must be sent to purgatory to have the opportunity to break their attachment to sin and have the opportunity to purify their souls (In a religious society, this would be viewed as 'good', giving the opportunity for the criminal to redeem themselves in the eyes of their lord is a gracious act afterall).

Final judgement, an entrance from purgatory to heaven, occurs at the end of the year. Thus criminals must be given to purgatory as early as possible in the year (first month) to have the greatest chance of atonement.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer. Almost any combination of beliefs about gates to the afterlife, or gates within the afterlife, being open only on certain days or at certain times of the year could lead to restricted execution dates. And, the reason could be benevolent or malevolent, depending on the society's feelings about whether criminals must be punished eternally, or once burnt up cannot cause any more harm are beyond further punishment. $\endgroup$ – A. I. Breveleri Nov 23 '17 at 22:50
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They are short on wood and the only spare stakes are discarded Christmas trees, and because they are religious nuts Christmas and trees are mandatory, despite lack of trees.

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Since the stake burning is to be a ritual, the God/Gods are only pleased when a flower of a very particular plant is added to the bonfire, to make the specific God(s)-approved scent and/or flame colour, or conversely, just to kill the smell altogether.

As luck would have it, the plant only blooms in that particular month, hence the ritual cannot take place at any other time.

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You need a special tree

The numbers of this kind of three growing are very small. The required soil is just not available en masse and it takes ages for one to grow to a suitable size.

That's why you need to handle the convicts en masse

If there is not enough wood for every convict you just have to handle the convicts together. That's why you are collecting them throughout the year and then sentence them to death together. That reduces the required resources and can be combined with other reasons such as getting rid of the convicts before a hard winter hits the country and right after they were cheap labour on the fields.

Only this tree will work for religious or biological reasons

Depending on how much you want to emphasize your religion you might want to make it a rule of the gods that only this tree, which, for example, served as the material for burning an evil god once in the past, is suitable for this occasion. Everything else would be a sin.

Or you could make your trees burn better than any other tree. This would again lead to this tree being used to burn your convicts because everything else would be a waste of resources. Again, combining this with a hard winter, shows that your society appreciates using resources as efficiently as possible.

This tree could also be imported from other countries

You could make the wood from this rare and very-good-burning tree a good that is bought from travelling salesmen from other countries. They only come to your country once a year and they sell a lot of important goods. One of them being the wood from these trees. And your efficiency-focused society could then buy just enough to burn all the convicts. No work in getting the resources because others are delivering them, no goods wasted because you are only getting as much as you need for last years serious convicts and it enhances your relations with a possibly important allied country.

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It is really easy to rile people up into killing someone.

By restricting death punishment to a particular month, you provide time for sober second thought, and made lynch mobs clearly illegal. Except possibly in that month; but that can be patched.

We add in the rule that sacrifice must be during that month, and if the sentence was passed in the previous month it must be on the last day of the month, and you cannot pass sentence of death during that month, you have a system that prevents lynching, and guarantees at least a month of "appeal" period and sober second thought.

There is a practical downside; it means that you have to feed the victim for the year. In a pre-modern society this is amazingly expensive. Practically, temporary slavery will be used, where sentenced criminals are enslaved by the community.

Productive slaves are not a resource to be wasted. So a system whereby the person owning the slave contract can "buy out the death" of the slave and keep the person in slavery for another year should be expected, where the money used would be split between the priest caste and the clan/family that the criminal harmed.

This would be abused by having an ally of the criminal "enslave" the criminal and then "buy out the death" repeatedly. In the usual iterative manner, the religious law would then say an unsupervised "slave"'s actions would be the responsibility of the owner.

In modern days, slavery may have been outlawed, and feeding a criminal is no longer extremely expensive. So the slavery/buyout system may be gone, or it may exist in the form of a freedom bond, imprisonment while productive enough to pay off your "death price" every year, or imprisonment while you/your estate/your family can still pay the annual "death price".

In such a society, you might be convincted of 1 year of imprisonment and a death price of 1000$/year (for the rest of your life). During imprisonment you'd be worked to pay off your death price, and when freed you'd have to continue to pay it. If unable to pay it while free, you'd be imprisoned and put to work. If your labor is insufficient to pay your death price, the next burning month you'd be put to death.

On a tangent, by requiring religious blessing before putting someone to death this also reinforces the religious organization's power. They have the right to put someone to death, and nobody else does. Temporal authority has to bring their criminals to the religous court to impose the top punishment. Religious authorities thus have an incentive to presist this rule over the centuries and consider it important.

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In the distant past the people of the religion had an Enemy, so naturally the people of this religion had to go and fight a holy war to eliminate the threat, however because of the inclement weather at the end of the year and the need to get people back to plant the crops at the start of the second month there was only really a "window" of the first month where it was ok to go off and fight this Enemy so the leaders (who ruled both the state and the church) mandated that everyone had to wait until the start of the first month to go and had to be back by the end of it. This was a hugely successful war and heralded the start of a bright new era of growth and prosperity for the people of the religion and as such is an extremely significant event.

Over the years however the finer details of why they could only go fight the enemy during that first month gets a bit lost in translation - certainly the crops issue is not what it once was, however the notion that the first month was the only "acceptable" month to go and kill the enemies of the religion remained and as the "enemies" now can be taken to mean the criminals within their own society this gets translated into the first month of the year being the only acceptable month to kill them.

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A couple of ideas:

  1. Specialist investigators/lawyers - Due to the irreversible nature of the death penalty, multiple specialists are involved in determining if it may go ahead. For logistical reasons, they are fully employed by the state for a set time in the year, the rest of the year they can run their own practices for non death-penalty related things. This is seen as fairer, as they can devote all their attention to these cases.

  2. Tradition - executions in the past only happened at this time, for superstitious reasons. As there has been no reason to change this, it has remained.

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Judges are employed part-time, and jurors all have jobs. Based on earlier, agrarian times the trial period for criminals would traditionally have been after the harvest when everyone is at their least busy. It then follows that the executions would follow shortly afterwards, so try in October and November, sentence carried out in December.

Perhaps the need for the post-harvest trial has long-since ended, but the tradition of a December execution remains.

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This is a public spectacle. Thus we are talking large, public fires--nothing to confine them.

The burning is done at the time of the year where the risk of an ember starting a fire is lowest.

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