Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Graveyards and Final Remains

Charnel House of Amidadera Temple in Japan. Photo by KMR

Where do you put your dead? The remains of those close to you, that you loved while they were alive and still miss in their absence? Your fallen soldiers, civil servants? Dead enemies? Plague victims? Strangers?

Halloween is just around the corner and cemeteries and the dead are on the minds of many. Last week RMtBF talked about ghosts, but what about the physical remains and where they are kept?

Tombstones. Crypts. Mausoleums. Necropolises. Columbaria. Urns. Charnel houses. Mastaba. These are the physical monuments, markers that hint at what lies within or beneath. Construction, creativity infused into mortality. Places to put what the dead have left behind, places the living can visit. Some of the wonders of the world were or are monuments to the dead. The pyramids in Egypt. The Taj Mahal in India.

What people do with the dead will depend on their beliefs regarding the soul, the physical world and the afterlife. Some cultures and religion forbid cremation. Others encourage it. Some religions that believe in a resurrection of the physical body requires there be a physical body to resurrect. Others beliefs dictate the body be given over to nature; though the spirit moves on, there are still others living here who need the nourishment and energy a physical body can provide.

A cultures views on death will dictate where they put their dead. Those who want to forget about death, push it away or simply not deal with decay in close proximity will distance themselves from the dead, putting cemeteries on the edge of town. Those who are more accepting of death as being a part of life may have a physical place for the dead within the city walls, on their personal property or even in their homes.

Whether death comes naturally, through illness or violently, something happens to the remains. Hygiene dictate the body be handled properly and quickly, since decay sets in quickly and brings with it disease. Dead bodies attract scavengers which can be a nuisance or again, bring illness, not to mention the stigma many of these animals have. Sometimes the dead must be protected, either because something wants to eat them, they’re buried with things others may want or because their remains might be considered valuable for medicine or magic. Some kinds of deaths or the deaths of certain individuals are seen as being evil and so they are disposed of or buried in special areas, meant to be regarded with suspicion. And some aren’t given the courtesy of a proper disposal, the remains left for someone else to discover and wonder if fear, hate or ignorance led to the mistreatment of a person’s remains.

Throw the PCs in a mysterious tomb and see what they learn about the culture that erected it. Walk them through a graveyard and find out what they think about the dead and perhaps have them come across others visiting the graves. Or perhaps your character always carries around the remains of a passed loved one.

Autumn is here, the earth is winding down in the Northern hemisphere and Halloween is approaching. Bring out your dead.

For GMs

  • What are the cultural practices surrounding the dead and what beliefs about the body, soul and/or spirit contribute to this? Are there multiple practices? What is the cause of this?
  • Where are the dead kept? In areas outside the city? In plots or edifices within civilization? On family land? Within the home?
  • Are there laws about where dead bodies can be interred/the handling of dead bodies/what can be done with dead bodies?
  • What is done when someone is believed to be dead but no remains are available?
  • What kinds of receptacles are used for the remains of the dead? How does this differ from region to region? Class to class?
  • Are people encouraged to visit the dead frequently? On certain holidays?
  • Who guards over the remains of the dead? Are people hired to guard? Is it up to families to protect their deceased loved ones? Or is there nothing to guard or no reason to protect what’s there? Are there rules about visiting the dead?
  • What are common motifs surrounding death? Plants or animals associated with death?
  • Famous or common epitaphs? What is the civilization’s equivalent of R.I.P.?
  • What is done with the remains of plague victims? Criminals? Other undesirables?

Plot Hooks

  • After a violent earthquake, a nearby graveyard is disturbed and the remains of several individuals are missing. The PCs are sent to track down and recover the remains. Who is missing? Is there any connection between the individuals? Who was in the graveyard at the time? Who hires the PCs to find the remains and what do they have at stake?
  • Bodies meant for the crematorium are boxed and not supposed to be opened once sealed. However someone has placed something someone else wants on a body being sent to the crematorium and the PCs must recover it. Do the PCs know what the item is? Who put the item on the dead body? Why? What are the consequences for disturbing dead remains? Why does the person who hired the PCs want the item so badly?
  • On an auspicious day for grave robbing and treasure hunting the PCs must guard the dead. Who comes to disturb those passed? What kinds of things are being stolen and for what purposes? How are people sneaking in?
  • While breaking ground for a new building, a massive tomb is found underneath the city. However, the remains found there belong to another culture. As an act of goodwill, the country is offering to transport the remains to their homeland and the PCs are part of the caravan moving the remains. How long do they have for the journey? How do the people know the remains belong to a different people? Are any special rites required before, during or after the trip? How are they received by the populace at large? By the country receiving the remains?
  • When a close friend or relative is executed and given an improper burial, the PCs take it upon themselves to acquire the body and give it the funeral and final resting place it deserves. How do they go about acquiring the body? Who is the individual they are ‘rescuing’? What must be done to set their death aright? What will it mean for the PCs and their friend if they should fail? Why was their friend executed and not given a burial befitting their beliefs?

For PCs

  • What do you want done with your remains after you die?
  • Have you ever been around a dead body? Ever touched one?
  • How do you view various forms of dealing with remains? Do you think any more barbaric/civilised than other methods?
  • Are you creeped out by graveyards? Urns?
  • What do you want your epitaph to be?
  • Where do you think is the proper place for remains to be settled?

What say you? And for some reason I have an idea for a mobile columbarium stuck in my head but cannot get it out. A person who travels around with the ashes of dozens of individuals, but why? Huh. Does that get your wheels turning?


Also, do you like to read horror? Dig e-books? Need some stories to inspire your next campaign or just creep you out in time for Halloween? Well on October 23rd, 24th and 25th myself and a few dozen other authors will be offering our horror titles for FREE as part of Halloween Free Horror through Amazon. So fire up your Kindle apps and be sure to pick those up next week. 

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Ghosts and Ghost Stories

Almost every culture has them. Ghost stories. Whether the belief in the supernatural is a mainstay of life at large or something people on the fringes base their lives upon, death affects us all and stories abound regarding those who linger on, not in body but in spirit.

Many ancient cultures believed spirits of the dead lived on like the living, just in a different plane of existence where they ate, visited with other deceased relatives, slept and performed other activities similar to the living. Many of these people believed maintaining the graves of their ancestors was important, so the spirits wouldn’t grow angry and cause havoc on the earth, plaguing the living with illness or bad luck. There are still cultures in the world who believe this, with holidays meant to honor ancestors and practices that keep the dead part of life.

Ghosts are believed to be formed in different ways and depending on the setting/culture, are able to do certain things. Many people believe ghosts are a result of some kind of suffering, either at the time of death or in the afterlife itself which causes the ghosts to manifest. Violent deaths, accidents, murders bring back the spirits of the slain to sort out their final moments or exact revenge upon those who sent them to their graves. Other times a life poorly lived causes the spirit to spend out its days in torment, never having peace, disfigured with otherworldly emotion and torture.

Ghost stories are a way to show what people think about death and the dead. They showcase what people fear and run rampant with themes of revenge, loss, longing, betrayal and corruption. Every culture has ghost stories. The Epic of Genji, Arabian Knights, the Illiad, the Torah and the Gospels all have ghost stories or mentions of ghosts. Stories of the dead also remind us that we’re still alive, able to enjoy those still living and and to live life in such a way that we don’t take regrets or things that would make us feel guilty beyond our last breaths.

Even the bravest individual can still get spooked by a ghost story and a spooky story can set any adventuring party on edge. What will make your PCs neck hairs stand on end?

For GMs

  • How are ghosts believed to be made in the world? What circumstances surrounding a death propagates a ghost? Or are all who die able to become spirits that walk the earth?
  • Are ghosts neutral forces that can be swayed by the living? Malevolent creatures with their own agendas? Spirits who might have relatives running around?
  • What abilities and qualities do ghosts have? Do all ghosts look the same? Do they resemble how they looked in life? Or are they just glowing bits on the wind?
  • Can they affect the corporeal world? Can they touch things and/or move things? Can they possess things? Wither crops? Cause illness?
  • Can people communicate with the dead or are there special individuals within the community who handle such matters?
  • What is the Underworld/Afterlife like?
  • Do the dead possess knowledge of their life on earth or are their memories wiped when they die?
  • Are there any holidays which encourage the telling of ghost stories? Are these stories meant to inspire fear? Warn? Prove that ghosts are real?
  • What ghost stories are well known in the culture? How have they changed over the years? How have they adapted themselves to different regions.
  • What do people call ghosts/different kinds of ghosts?

Plot Hooks

  • The PCs become trapped in a dungeon where a spooky individual appears. It will let them out if they can regale it with a story scary enough to frighten it. Who is the individual who has trapped them? What kind of story will sufficiently scare the individual?
  • Arriving late to the city, the PCs find refuge in an inn, only to find out why the prices were so reasonable. The inn is said to be haunted by a relative of the innkeeper. When things go bump in the night, the PCs have trouble sleeping and investigate the causes of the sounds. What do they find?
  • While traveling in a foreign land, a local overhears their travel plans and suggests the PCs take plenty offerings for the dead. The land they are traveling through once was a battlefield in an epic and terrible battle and the spirits of the slaughtered soldiers are said to cause mischief to those who do not leave them offerings. Do the PCs heed the person’s words? What do they have to offer? Do they believe the plains are haunted? What kinds of things do they encounter there?
  • The PCs are sent to peddle ‘Vanishing Powder’ throughout the land, a substance said to get rid of ghosts. Upon announcing their wares in one village, an angry mob forms and chases them out of town, physically assaulting them if they do not leave peacefully. While being chased out of town they overhear people yelling, ‘You aren’t going to get rid of our ghosts!’ Do the PCs leave peacefully and never return? What do they make of the reaction from the villagers?

For PCs

  • Do you believe in ghosts?
  • Do you have a favorite ghost story? Is there a ghost story or something about ghosts that creep you out?
  • Have you ever encountered a ghost or a supernatural creature? Ever been to a place that was haunted?
  • How do you feel about ghosts? Do you fear them? Pity them? Are you curious about them?
  • If you were by yourself and encountered a ghost, what would be your first reaction?
  • What are possible, non-supernatural explanations for ghosts?
  • What would it take for you to come back as a ghost?

What say you? In the mood to have a spooky encounter during your next session?

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