Friday, June 15, 2012

Pellatarrum: Burial Rites for Elves

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

To the elves, there are two parts to death. The first is the actual death of the body. Elves typically do not place much importance on this event;  a physical death just means that there is another carcass to dispose of, just like any other type of rotting meat.. It’s done quickly, efficiently and without fanfare*. The part of death that elves focus on is social: the departure of the elf from formal society and recognized, official existence.

As with many other elven formalities, this process can be a drawn-out affair, and in the meantime the deceased is considered “indisposed and unable to properly greet guests as they deserve.” This phrase is not a euphemism; it is used by elves to describe anyone who is unable, for whatever reason, to make a public appearance. These reasons may vary by such extremes as death, exile, public humiliation, or simply having an unsightly blemish.

This pretense that nothing is wrong strikes most outsiders as a somewhat eerie practice, but to elves it is simply the natural way to grieve. Once the family has decided to formally acknowledge the death, they hold a formal (and often extended) ceremony which serves as both a ritual goodbye and a means of establishing a new pecking order. The higher the status of the deceased elf, the more elaborate the ritual. Dwarves tend to joke that all elven politics is just an extension of the burial ritual of the previous elven queen, and there may be some truth to that observation.

Once the ritual is complete, the deceased no longer exists. While there may be records of the elf's life, they are in the past and are a matter of only minor significance; a historical curiosity which is largely irrelevant to the perception of the eternal elven "now". 

*Elves have two techniques for disposing of bodies. The least preferred, and almost exclusively done where the other option isn't available, is to simply dig a grave and bury the body. This is always done in dirt, never stone, and is always done immediately after death, preferably the very day after the elf dies.

The preferred method, however, is to feed the body to the stonebirds, a large flightless carrion-eater indigenous to jungles and hot swamps. Stonebirds are peculiar in that nothing that has been eaten by a stonebird ever rises as an undead. In fact, they are immune to whatever diseases or curses may be upon the body. This makes them the only naturally-occurring predators of the undead in Pellatarrum.

The traditional elven burial-ground is reminiscent of a Tower of Silence. Built out of volcanic rock, these ossuaries are essentially ritual feeding grounds for scavengers, maximized for efficiency and designed to ensure that the stonebirds' feeding is done as easily and as throughly as possible. Unlike their earthly counterparts, however, there is no need to ritually dissect the body before the carrion eaters begin; a stonebird's beak and claws will tear flesh and splinter bone with ease. What little is left behind is would be of use to only the most powerful and dedicated of necromancers.
The ability to safely eliminate undead is one of the reasons for their name. The other reason is that a Stonebird is built like a tank, with feathers as hard as iron, beaks like battleaxes and legs that can kick harder than a mule.

Without stonebirds, life in the preferred elven climate -- a climate which is hot, wet, and completely unbearable to the dwarves, who refer to living in such a climate as “rusting away” -- would be impossible as there is no place where the dead can be buried in dry earth. (To understand why it is important to bury the dead in earth and keep them away from water. see The Elemental Nature of Undead.)

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