Belief in what happens to someone after they die can shape a culture, often quite dramatically. The pyramids are what a lot of people think of when Egypt is mentioned. The viking’s belief that death in battle would let them enter Valhalla can’t have harmed their willingness to fight. In a fantasy world where it’s actually possible to talk to gods or dead people, or visit the outer planes through magic, then a definite answer about life after death is probably well known so it should shape the cultures of those worlds appropriately.
The existence (or not) of undead should also influence burial rituals. If there’s a chance that the corpses of your ancestors are going to rise up and destroy the town, then you may not want to keep them laying around. Legend of the Five Rings actually thought about this, in that all dead are cremated in order to prevent the rise of undead. Most fantasy worlds simply copy European traditions, without considering that this is often a really bad idea.
So if we wanted to have the possibility of ancient crypts filled with corpses ready to be animated as undead warriors, we need a belief system that encourages everyone to keep corpses around for the long term.
For my Sinking City game, I’d like to have ancient crypts full of undead – which requires both people keeping the dead around, and a reason to build crypts and monuments to the dead in the first place. What follows are some thoughts on how things might work in this setting.
Where a spirit goes
When a person dies, their spirit moves to the ethereal, drifting quickly to the deep ethereal which is both hard and dangerous to reach with magic. The ethereal is a mirror of the real world, reflecting a shadowy dream-like reality based as much on the emotion of a place as it is on its physical geography.
Running water and open seas create a barrier on the ethereal, so rivers appear as great walls of turbulent ectoplasm, whilst seas are impassable churning maelstroms. This means that the spirits of the dead can rarely pass over such barriers, possibly making islands a haven from ghosts and spirits. Then again, they also can’t leave, so where possible cemeteries are built on islands, or separated from homes by a river.
Whilst a spirit resides in the ethereal, it keeps a connection to its body. If the spirit lived a life that brought it to the attention of a god, then that god may send a guide – a Psychopomp – to help lead the spirit to their final resting place in the outer planes alongside their god. For most people though, this doesn’t happen. Instead as the body decays, the spirit’s memories and personality fade, and it eventually becomes an insane husk of its original self. Often they are simply stuck on the ethereal, but sometimes they can find their way back to haunt the living.
Remembering the Dead
In order to prevent this, prayers are said over the body of the dead in order to bring the deceased to the attention of their god, so that a psychopomp is sent to guide the spirit to its deserved afterlife. Even then, there is still a connection to the body, and continued prayers over time ensure that the spirit retains, or even gains, status in the afterlife. Destroying a body, through mutilation or burning for example, can prevent this, thereby encouraging people to respect the corpses of their loved ones, and keep them buried somewhere safe, where it is possible for descendants and loved ones to pay their respects.
Some powerful kings have risen to the stature of gods through the use of glorified tombs and nation-wide prayer and worship. All that most people can hope for is a comfortable existence in the afterlife. Eventually most people’s spirit will fade away, but the hope is that this is a gradual and pleasant experience, rather than a descent into madness.
This means that graveyards are sacred places, and the bodies of the dead are nearly always buried there. Murdering someone and hiding or leaving their corpse somewhere it will not be found is considered a level of immorality beyond simple murder. After battle, most civilised armies will allow the burial of their dead enemies, or sometimes even bury them themselves and dedicate them to their own god. They are expected to be treated well in the afterlife, at least as honoured prisoners of war.
In the Atharian Republic, many people (especially travellers) carry a token upon their body, either a necklace or bracelet, that provides their name and religion. If they are to die amongst strangers, then at least someone could say prayers for them.
The Evil Dead
However, there are those that worship powers that are considered dark and corrupt by civilised folk. Such powers preach that the strong have the right to dominate the weak, or that their victims somehow deserve their fates. Those that follow them don’t expect to be dragged down to an afterlife of pain and suffering – nobody sane would worship such a god if that was their gift. Instead they inflict that fate on their victims – their prayers send their spirits on to their own dark afterlife, where they will serve in the armies of their god in their wars of conquest in the Outer Planes. The dark priests themselves are promised positions of lordship and power when they die.
The punishment for committing the dead to eternal slavery is often cremation, or death and burial at sea where their spirits can become lost and never seek redemption. For this reason the followers of dark powers seek to ensure that when they die, they do so on their own terms where their own priests can help guide their souls. Some make a pact with their god, paying a dark price for the promise of immediate ‘salvation’ upon their death.
The Immortality of Elves
The immortal elves never died. Even if their bodies were killed, their spirits would return to their World Trees to be reborn again in new bodies but with their memories intact. In this sense they were truly immortal.
With the destruction of the World Trees, the Elves lost their immortality, and their spirits are now free to move on to the Outer Planes like those of lesser peoples. The spirits of the elves are particularly hardy, so are sometimes highly prized by dark priests seeking foot soldiers for their god’s slave armies.
The Other Races
Halflings are much like humans, and their customs are similar. Dwarves bury their dead in massive underground tombs, where priests continuously chant the names and deeds of the dead.
Orcs carve their names and deeds into their flesh, and after battles the names of the fallen are praised in a great ceremony. Their goddess takes anyone sent to her, and treats them all as equals and given a chance to prove themselves to her.
Gnomes and other fey are different, and do not go to the outer planes on their death, instead returning to the Dreamlands to be reborn with no memory of their previous life. Because of this, the fey do not have ghosts in the way that the other races do.