Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Death and Funerals

Momento Mori. Especially Adventurers.

If you’ve made it this far in life and haven’t had to deal with the death of someone close to you, then I am counting you among the lucky. Unless this is because you and your family and friends are otherworldly entities who can suck the life force from other creatures, thereby rendering you immortal, in which case, what the ****?

The fact of the matter is that life and death are linked together. Modernity means we aren’t exposed to it every day the way our ancestors were, but it’s there. People die every day. The living things surrounding us are constantly locked in a battle to survive which means something must give up the ghost. The food you eat whether derived from animal or plants? That’s a big mouthful of death, converted to energy so we can live a bit longer.

But we don’t hold funerals for sandwiches (though some of us might pray over our food before we send it to the glorious tomb of our bellies) or the weeds we pull in our gardens. Not every death is commemorated with ceremony and solemnity. Rituals for the dead for the vast majority of us are reserved for those we have connections with, either emotionally, spiritually or financially. We might attend a state funeral for a fallen civil servant or watch the news coverage of the procession for a fallen media personality. A great deal of us would be okay with having a small funeral for a beloved family pet. But there is always a connection that causes us to want to commemorate the passing in some way.

Every living thing dies. And how people view death, commemorate the departure of a being and console those left behind is one of the most important tenets of culture. Most every religion deals with what happens after we die and every culture has its proper way to deal with the dead. Taboo, superstition, faith, science, ecology, health and psychology all intertwine as people gather around the deceased and send them off to the next life or oblivion.

Burial, cremation, sky funerals, burial at sea. What is done with the decaying remains? Some religions that believe in resurrection frown upon the destruction of the body while others insist upon it, lest the spirit have somewhere to return. The final resting place of the remains must be considered and what expense is allowed the dead? Humble farmers might have a simple ceremony with a priest, a few loved ones and dig the graves or stoke the fires themselves while the rich might go as lavishly as they can be allowed without committing blasphemy. Where the supernatural and the divine overlap come various rites and rules about what is done with dead bodies and what kind of care is taken around them. People who die from old age or common illnesses will most likely be allowed a proper funeral while suicides, plague victims or people who died from mysterious causes might be dealt with completely differently. And while there are always traditions regarding the burial of the dead there are always those who want to do something a little different, either to be true to themselves and their beliefs even after they’ve drawn their last breath or, well…spite is a good reason.

When people die, it can bring relatives from around the world either to pay their last respects or in the hopes they can get a little something out of the deceased’s estate. Funerals are social events, usually morose in tone but still one where people have to gather and interact with each other. Immediate family members are usually in attendance. Soldiers can be pulled off the front lines in order to bury their parents and other family, friends and acquaintances gather around. This can be both a comfort and a burden to the family trying to deal with the upheaval in their lives or it can be an uncomfortable reunion, especially if the family members haven’t seen each other for a while.

When people die, there are always those people and things they leave behind to consider. Their family, their belongings, their debts, their legacies. Families have to shift burdens, items many people receive the death of a loved one as a wake up call, looking over the life lived and trying to learn from it.

Adventurers often find themselves in life or death situations, probably helping with goblin pinebox industry quite a bit in the name of good or personal gain. While handing out buckets of death, are they aware of how they play into the cycle of life? Adventurers are often put into situations where most of us would be hoping they got their Will notarized last time they met their lawyers. What kind of life can death breath into your campaign?

For GMs

  • What are the funerary rites for the culture? What must be performed by who in order to ensure the deceased makes their way to the afterlife and rests peacefully?
  • Are there holidays where the dead are remembered? Examples include Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, the Bon Festival in Japan, the Ghost Festival in China or the Celtic Samhain. What symbols do people use to represent the dead? What kinds of foods and offerings are deemed appropriate for those who no longer have bodies?
  • Are the practices the same for each religion or does each following have its own way to send its followers into the afterlife? Do any small pockets of people deal with their dead bodies in a different way? Does this mesh with or disturb the lives of the majority?
  • Who prepares the bodies? Is it done by priests? Is it a profession? What kind of training is required? Are those who touch and deal with bodies revered members of society or shunned?
  • Where are the cemeteries? Are people buried and then dug up after a certain amount of time to consolidate the bones? If people are cremated, where are the crematoriums? If people are left out for a ‘sky burial,’ where are these places? Who guards them?
  • Are there colors or articles of clothing appropriate/inappropriate for a funeral? Black is the traditional color for funerals in the Western world but white is typical in the East with red forbidden, since red symbolizes happiness. What do widows and widowers wear and for how long?
  • How long does mourning last? What does a mourning period entail? How long after the funeral are the spouses of the deceased allowed to remarry?
  • What are the consequences of bodies not being disposed of properly? Are there legal repercussions? Spiritual punishment for the deceased? Curses on the land? Dishonor for the family?
  • What kinds of ghost stories are shared in this country? How are ghosts made? Are they vengeful? Or just sad?
  • Are Wills (as in Last Will and Testament, not like, ‘I DESIRE TACOS’) normal? Reserved only for the wealthy? Who officiates the creation/reading of the Will? Or do family members just divide the material goods as they see fit?
  • What happens to a person’s debts when they die? Are they passed on to the next of kin? What about crimes? What about crimes committed? If the accused dies, is the family required to compensate or stand in in some fashion?
  • Does the state or the church take care of widow(er)s and orphans in any way?

Plot Hooks

  • A death in the family draws all the PCs back to the ancestral home. Instead of goods the deceased family member leaves the PCs with a task: to return the remains to their indigenous country, something that had been a family secret for years. If they return the remains and the seal of the family to the right person, they will receive a great reward as well as an estate. Are the PCs willing to work together to perform these last rights? Are any of the PCs interested in moving to a foreign country? What dangers lie on the way? Why was the country of origin kept a secret for all this time?
  • A fanatical deathcult grows in force in the region, the leader saying when a certain number of souls are buried, their deity will rise up with the energy of the souls of the dead. The members of the deathcult are at every funeral they can attend, keeping count and calling upon their god. When a strange figure that matches the description of their deity appears with knowledge of the recently deceased and crazy powers, what happens in the city? Is it really their deity? An avatar? Something far more sinister? Or something more benign? The PCs must investigate and get to the bottom of this before the deathcult gains more followers and more power.
  • The birds that normally perform the honours of the sky funerals by eating the bodies have mysteriously disappeared. Corpses lie on the platforms for days and only flies and mammalian predators show up, the revered birds absent from the important final ritual. The local religious leader sends the PCs to investigate. What is keeping the birds from their place of honor? Is someone catching the birds? Have the bodies been tampered with, putting the birds off? What happens to the souls of those whose bodies rot? Is it magic? Is someone trying to curse the village/town/city with the ghosts of those uneaten?
  • When an item of the deceased is stolen during the wake, the PCs must try to find it among those attending in order that the dead be buried with their most prized possession. Who has stolen the item? Why?
  • The reading of a will reveals that the PCs who were expecting something are now deep in debt. When they hear local news stories seeming to imply their dead friend or family member might in fact still be alive, they must choose to either fulfill the contract thrust upon them or to investigate the sightings. Can they do both at the same time? Are their suspicions true? Or are the reports a ploy to get them deeper into their employer’s service?
  • Someone has been desecrating the graves of clergy members. Who is defiling the graves? How are they getting access to the grave sites? Are they doing it for revenge? To undermine the Church? Or do they have a more bizarre plan to show which deity is really in charge?
  • The local monster population sends a leader claiming they are done with their evil ways and demand compensation to help take care of their widow(er)s and orphans, claiming most of the population was put in this situation because of rabid adventurers. The PCs must investigate the settlement and decide if the monsters are in fact good and determine how much of their plight is from overzealous beast-hunters.

For PCs

  • What was the last thing you killed?
  • Do you have a Last Will and Testament? Who knows about it?
  • What do you want done with your body when you die? Is it typical for someone of your background? From your country?
  • How do you feel about the people/beings you’ve killed? Do you pray for the souls of those you’ve slain or hope they rot in whatever serves for Hell for you?
  • What do you think happens in the afterlife?
  • How long after the death of an individual do you think the soul remains in the body? Do you think there is a window of time where a person can be resurrected with their soul and spirit intact? If you die, would you want to be brought back through scientific/magical means?
  • Is there anyone you know whose funeral you would DEFINITELY make it home for?
  • Do you think there is a reward in the afterlife? What do you have to do to earn it?
  • Do you have money set aside for a funeral or are you willing to just pass it on to your loved ones, since you’ll be dead?
  • What kind of death would you have to experience to come back as a ghost?

What say you? What does Death hold in your campaign or for your PC?

5 thoughts on “Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Death and Funerals

Add yours

  1. Another good article. How a culture deals with death says a lot about it.

    The funeral of an important person is a good way to introduce these aspects when a new culture is encountered.


    1. Definitely. And some religions reenact the ‘death’ of a certain deity on holidays. Death of the Gods is an important theme in many cosmologies.

      Ah man, I forgot to add in a bit about grave markers. Maybe next time.


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