Thursday, July 25, 2013

Corpses and Caches

Another reblog from my old Cranky Gamer

Corpses and Caches:

The Afterlife and Burial Traditions in Dungeons and Dragons

One thing that has recently annoyed me about D&D cosmology is “Why on Faerun would you bury whole corpses?” That only the spirit survives into the afterworld is a provable fact, provided you have a high enough level wizard or cleric. Upper level clerics can even directly question their deities about life after death, to say nothing of visiting the souls of the dead in the Outer Planes, or interrogating them via Speak with Dead. The advantages to keeping bodies around is small; burials take up space, and, more importantly in D&D, corpses attract and become undead with disturbing frequency. A graveyard is likely to attract ghouls. Necromancers can use the various bodies for anything from simple skeletons and zombies to horrific flesh-born nightmares. This says nothing of the vast wealth that is regularly entombed with the dead... magic items, piles of gold, and tomes of eldritch spells are all regular found even in non-undead haunted graves. So why throw away useful magic items, usually only for the use of undead, necromancers, adventurers and similar reprobates?

To examine this, some assumptions remain the same from the D&D Standard Cosmology. Most notably, when someone dies, their soul travels through the Astral Plane to the home of their deity, or to the plane of their appropriate alignment (frequently, but not always, the same). Raise Dead and Resurrection call the soul back from this journey (or the destination), into a body repaired to receive it; reincarnate creates a body to receive them. I work from the assumption that preserving a corpse and grave goods of value serve some function; that leaving a body mostly intact and burying it with such riches as can be afforded is, in some way, useful to a person in their afterlife, and that purposefully eschewed the preservation of the corpse (such as through cremation) serves a purpose in the afterlife, as well.

The Afterworld
It is a common conception, tied to many real-world religions, that those of evil alignment are punished after death. In D&D, this is not the case. Those not called to the home of their deity instead go to the plane of their alignment, which is a place where the world works the way it should work, from the point of view of that alignment. Those who are Lawful Good go to a place where the rules are just and create happiness for people. Those who are chaotic evil go to a place where the strong inflict their will upon the weak, and the True Neutral go to a plane where neither good nor evil is embraced, nor law or chaos, but are instead part of a balance of forces affecting life.

The goal of the afterlife is to become wholly in tune with the alignment or deity in question; for a lawful person to purge themselves of whimsy, for a good person to give up spite, and for the chaotic to eschew a need to control any but themselves (and, sometimes, not even that). In some cases, this may result in unpleasantness or perceived punishment as the person adjusts to their plane. A Lawful and Good person finds that their base desires pale compared to community and service; a chaotic and evil person relearns that no good deed goes unpunished, and that everyone is always out for number one. From the point of view of someone holding that alignment, this is not only how the world should work, but also how they always suspected it did, deep down. That for all their veneer of civility, everyone is willing to sell their mother for a few gold. That the world would be a better place if everyone pitched in and did their part. If evil souls get tortured in this arrangement, it’s not because the Planes are sentencing them to punishment, but instead because they were not strong or capable enough to stop it.

The end result of this is that not many people wish to be resurrected, once they’ve ended their travel to their plane. Things make sense here, and going back to the real world means that life gets messy and insensible again. If someone is being resurrected, they should have something that they wish to complete, some reason to come back. For many adventurers, this isn’t hard to come up with, but for a lot of people, going to their final reward is just that... a reward that they have no reason to set aside.
With that said, being in the afterworld is not initially easy; you arrive much like a newborn on the Prime Material, lacking a large portion of the knowledge you need to survive, and certainly ill-equipped to make your initial place in the world. In this analogy, the souls of the dead are the other children; some older and wiser, some younger and less experienced, and the various outer planar beings (devas, demons and deities) are the adults; old and wise in the ways of the world, they shepherd the “children” according to their own natures, be they base or benevolent. The newborn babe arrives in the world much as they left the Prime, though in their fullness of health. This is where corpses come in handy.

The Condition of the Corpse
Depending upon the condition of the corpse, a person will arrive in more or less the body they left, slowly becoming their “true selves”. A man who died of extreme old age will arrive in the planes as an elderly man; someone who died of violence will arrive much as he were in life, his wounds healed but much as he looked before death. As spirits retain affinity for the bodies which they left, a well-preserved corpse is a key part of remaining oneself in the afterlife; if Grandpa Jim is going to remain Grandpa Jim, even in death, it helps to have his corpse reasonably well-preserved to aid in this. A well-preserved corpse allows the dead to better relate to their ancestors, and to better guide (or exploit) their descendants, as some of the vital self remains preserved in the realm of reality, the Prime Material plane. A well-preserved corpse also allows a person to bring much of their personal power with them, adding not only to the eventual benefits of the deity, or plane, but also to the immediate benefit of the dead when they arrive. Long residence in the Outer Planes lessens the influence of the corpse upon the spirit, until the link naturally severs, ending the ability of even great spells and powerful priests to bring the dead back to life, or the influence of physical reality on the metaphysical reality of grave goods.

In this case, cremation or exposure of the corpse are acts which speak to a desire to leave behind the physical world. If no corpse ties you to the Material plane (either because your corpse was destroyed in the burial rites, or because the dragon ate all of you), your ties to the mortal world are weaker. This allows a person to more rapidly and fully join with their deity or their plane, but bear in mind that a rapid union is not necessarily the goal of every deity. A soul that quickly joins with the deity or plane has less of a chance to impart their own knowledge and viewpoints, and less time to become truly convinced of the rightness of what they do; while the joining is quick and smooth, the deity is made less rich for it, the plane less robust. Thus, deities do not encourage cremation, but nor do they discourage it; those who eschew their bodies are different, but not superior, to those whose corpses are preserved.

Likewise, proper burial rites help a spirit speed its way to the afterlife, creating a map to where the spirit is supposed to go. Even a simple lay blessing (i.e. a non-priest blessing you in the name of your god) helps to lead a soul to the correct place, while the full and proper rites by a priest provide a map, a pathway, and even a guardian on your route. Thus, leaving corpses unattended creates a longer, more perilous journey to the soul’s destination; blessing in the wrong name sends them on the wrong path, allowing the deity they are directed towards to take a bit of the power that would otherwise go to their true deity. Thus, warriors often dedicate their foes to their chosen god of war; assassins consign their targets to their chosen god of death. In a polytheistic society, a priest does not need to send someone to their own deity; a priest of Zeus can bless someone to Poseidon’s realm, should he choose; but many will bless them in both names, giving some power to their own deity for performing the service.

Grave goods (in adventurer-speak, this is called “loot”) add a similar luster to the afterlife. If you are buried with wealth, that wealth accompanies you to the afterworld. The magic sword which was placed with your corpse is with you when you arrive, as are the mounds of gold. These help to secure one’s place in the afterworld, with monies being spent as appropriate to one of your alignment, and magic items helping to secure your place. A Chaotic Good person buried with wealth and a magic weapon will spend the money on gifts for friends and strangers, and use the weapon in contests with outsiders and his fellow dead. A lawful evil person will spend the money on bribes to the more powerful, with the weapon helping to secure their safety and position. In many pantheons, the local death god also receives a toll from all the dead; those buried without a “toll” pay in a larger portion of their spirit, so even paupers are frequently buried with a few small valuables to pay the toll.
The logical result of these facts is that a corpse is important; treating it with respect not only reduces the chances of vengeance-driven undead, but also enhances the power of ones own deity. Likewise, disrespecting a corpse, leaving it without ceremony in the wilds, weakens the deity of your foe, as souls arrive weaker, and after a longer journey. And, to adventurers, it creates another reality: those long dead are less tied to their corpses and the physical representation of their grave goods. Thus, raiding an ancient tomb does little to harm the departed, while raiding a more modern tomb can be traumatic for the newly arrived soul.

What’s So Funny About Wights, Ghouls and Necromancy?
The picture created is one that looks bleak for necromancy; the condition of the corpse, and the respect paid to it, is an important part of one’s afterlife, especially in the beginning. Using necromancy to animate the dead, especially those who died in living memory (and thus are closer to the mortal world), steals power from the gods; clerics are more effective necromancers than wizards, in many cases, because this power is then given to the deities they serve, by consecrating the body back to their deity. Wizards must do things the hard way, with less conservation of spiritual energy.
Extremely simple undead (skeletons and zombies) are essentially mindless spirits brought from the negative material plane to animate corpses; they do not involve the spirits of the dead, only the corpses. In the newly dead, this can act as an anchor on the spirit, making it more difficult for the spirit to advance as their corpses shamble about in undeath; if the undead are bound in a tomb or similarly long-undisturbed place, it can cause a long debility for the spirit. As these anchors can last long beyond the natural decay of the corpse, most right-thinking people avoid necromancy, especially of the newly dead; others, such as cults of undeath, make it mandatory, as that increases the spirit’s understanding of undeath through their association with even a simple undead.

Most greater undead (liches, vampires, the various spectral undead) actually retain the spirit of the dead person, meaning that they do not even approach their reward; it makes for a popular escape for those who fear what death may bring them, but as they devour other creatures (through level drain), they deny others their afterlives, as well, either as undead servants or into complete oblivion. Ghouls, ghasts and “consumptive” undead are yet another case; unless they re-animate a person as an undead, their consumption of corpses reduces the connection of the soul to the mortal plane, speeding somewhat their integration with their deity or plane, but with an initial tinge of trauma.

Because the level of the soul affects the power absorbed by a deity, level draining undead are likewise frowned upon; not only can they cause great harm, a person whose level is drained, but then dies of natural causes, is less useful than one who dies in the fullness of his power. These facts make deities very protective of their followers, thus causing them to empower their direct servants (clerics) to drive back and destroy the undead; evil clerics are able to control the undead, to similar effect: protecting the cleric from the claws of the undead, while giving them a tool to rob others deities of power.

The Spiritual Exchange
I have eschewed concrete numbers in this; the “numbers” deities (or planes) deal with for an individual are a complex interplay of life behaviors, method of burial, state of the grave goods, and other factors. The factors mentioned above are additive, and while they will ideally be maximized (a devout follower who is properly buried with the correct rites by a priest of the correct deity, whose corpse and grave goods remain undisturbed until the person has passed from living memory), subtractive factors (a blessing to another deity, the corpse being eaten by a carrion crawler after being stripped by adventurers, but before it is animated as a skeleton) don’t strip a soul of all of its power. In the end, a poorly-treated corpse sees its tattered soul reach its destination... but its status is lowered, which can be quite dangerous to one who is destined for the lower planes.

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