Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Pellatarrum: Burial Rites and the Church of Light

Burial Rites: the Church of Light
Part 2 of "Dealing with the Undead"
by Demonic Bunny

“Her father had died the previous night. Death almost always happened during the night, unless it was a violent one. When the morning came she sent a runner, the farmhand's son, to the church nearby to fetch the priest. The two of them returned just before noon.

The priest did as he had done with her mother those years ago. He touched the body’s neck, feeling for a pulse and watching for even the faintest breath. Then he touched it with his symbol of light, sanctified (as all such symbols are) to find foul magic which might put one of the younger races into a semblance of death.

They had said the words, as ritual and ancient as the church itself: “Daughter, I say that he is dead, that there is no life left within him, and that his soul is no longer in the body. Do you deny this?” She had shaken her head, as good an answer as any, and together they had washed the body, rinsing it of sweat and filth.

The priest had laid out the pristine white winding sheet, and together they had laid her fathers body upon it. The priest said the necessary prayers, marked her father with blessed salt upon the forehead, the lips and above his heart, and then sprinkled the body with a fine layer of dry dirt. “With these words I send you onwards. May your soul pass on towards the light,” he intoned. Then they closed the shroud, the last she would ever see of her father.

At dusk the Watcher, the warrior assigned to keep vigil with her, had come. Always two, the watchful eyes, so that none would fall asleep. This time it was a proper Sentinel, clad in the garb of her order, the golden eye upon red tabard on top of well-kept maille. When her mother had died it had been a regular soldier, unused to the spell of vigil, and somewhat manic because of it. The Sentinel, however, was used to the touch of light and kept herself stoic and silent. Armed with her broad-bladed axe the Sentinel waited, almost like a statue. She would stand that way until dawn, unless the body started moving, in which case that axe would fall and behead and dismember the corpse. Even the most powerful of undead is vulnerable at the moment of awakening -- or at least that is what the church teaches.

A few hours after dawn the priest would come, along with his pallbearers, and carry her father to his final rest. They’d march towards the graveyard, behind its tall fence and under the watchful eyes of the Tower. The priest would speak his words and perform the ritual of burial, always circling the body clockwise, always careful to not let his shadow touch the body. Then the body would be lowered into the grave. More salt, more sanctified earth. And at midday they would close up the grave, and there he would rest.”

-The Burial of a Father

The Rite

Much can be said about the Church of Light, both good and bad, but their method of burial has become the gold standard for the younger races of Pellatarrum (specifically humans, gnomes, and halflings). While the specifics vary from region to region, and between different systems of belief, the four core components remain the same where ever you go: The four phases of The Confirmation of Death, The Purification, The Vigil and The Burial, each overseen by the three persons of Priest, Griever and Second.

The Priest is responsible for the ritual purification and is the arbitrator of the rite. He makes sure that the body is indeed dead (and not the victim of enchantments which mimic death), is purified of negative energy, and is properly laid down in dry earth. The priest also represents the interests of the local authority, whether that be the Church of Light, the local druid grove, or whichever king, nobleman or official who rules the lands.

The Griever represents the interests of the family and the deceased. Note that the Griever has as much authority as the Priest in determining if the body is, in fact, dead. If they do not accept the priest's decision regarding the deceased, the matter must be mediated by a third party -- any person of authority that the griever approves-- who then verifies that the dead is in fact dead by whatever means are available to him.

This procedure must be performed before nightfall. If it is not mediated before then, anyone who is being obstinate will be locked up with the body every night and kept under guard until either a full week has passed, or it is obvious that the body has started to decay. If, after a full week, the body shows no signs of decay, it is presumed to be undead and dispatched accordingly by the Second.

The Second is, without exception, a person with martial training and discipline. In a world where ghouls, ghasts, vampires and other nastiness exist, it is his role to make sure that the deceased does not rise  the following night as an undead. While clerics and paladins are preferred for this task, anyone with knowledge of the undead and skill with arms and armor is sufficient.

The Graveyard

There are a number of design features common to Pellatarran graveyards:
  1. They’re located in terrain where the graveyard is protected from wind, water and (to a certain extent) fire. The most important part is keeping the graveyard from getting waterlogged, so proper drainage and keeping it well above the groundwater level are of prime importance. Usually that means that the graveyard is located on a low hill (possibly artificial) and surrounded by trees to screen it from the wind. 
  2. They’re hard to get into, but easy to get out of. Few people visit a graveyard in Pellatarrum unless they’re on official business, and if they do it’s at noon. Any tribute to the ancestors is done at a small shrine at home, or located just outside the graveyard. However, cultists, grave robbers, ghouls, carrion-eaters and other sorts of nasty creatures must be kept out at all costs. A disturbed graveyard is that much more likely to turn into the epicenter of an undead uprising.  An elaborate graveyard consists of a raised hill, surrounded by stoneclad walls that from the outside can be anything from 7 to 30 feet tall, but on the inside are barely waist high. A less elaborate setup consists of a fenced graveyard with a low number (perhaps just one) of tightly controlled accesspoints.
  3. On the other hand, it should be easy to get out of it. You do not want to be caught inside a graveyard if things start to happen, and if undead do rise within the graveyard the last thing you want is for them to stay there, milling around. Active undead are foci of negative energy, and as such a cause for the rise of more undead.
  4. They have provisions so that a sentinel can monitor the entire graveyard from a point of relative safety. This varies between a small stone watchtower (with a sturdy door that can be barred from the inside) barely large enough for a few men and only manned in times of trouble, to a massive bastion that is permanent home to a full legion of church soldiers.

Other customs

Not all subscribe to the Church of Light model, however. The elder races have their own customs, reinforced by a cultural heritage that stretches over millennia. The druids of the Grey sect generally live in areas where there are not enough sentients to warrant a proper graveyard (not to mention that it would be contrary to their philosophy). The Cult of the Dark, those who consciously choose to associate themselves with the night and its mysteries, have their own traditions based on a very different belief in life and death.

These differences will be addressed in the next article.

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