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I have less fingers than the nr of cemeteries I cleared in campaigns of various scenarios and game mechanics. I find time and time again cemeteries crawling with undead. Either graves or crypts.

I understand the exotic/horror nature of a cemetery but if it happens once, twice, a million times, surely some peasants can get the hint and burn their dead?

A friend said that improper burial through fire angers the god who wants xyz ritual, that some undead are ghosts & other incorporeal undead BECAUSE they can't find their body so they throw a major ragequit.

Surely there must be a better reason.

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Becuase then the Paladin and Clerics Turn Undead would be useless... :) –  Inbar Rose Dec 22 '13 at 12:09
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Because then you get wraiths and spectres instead of skeletons and zombies. –  mxyzplk Dec 22 '13 at 16:26
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As a DM, if a village started burning their dead, I would cheerfully make them come back as fire elementals. Or flaming zombies. –  IgneusJotunn Dec 22 '13 at 17:36
    
This is true of nearly all fantasy aspects, not just undead. It's also why making the player characters and their encounters the exception helps suspension of disbelief. Otherwise, there is a whole host of items that have to be addressed; monsters, magic, deities, planes, et al. Of course, then the frequency of 'exceptional' encounters that that occur for the PCs begins to make suspension difficult. –  Wyrmwood Jan 6 at 23:00

3 Answers 3

up vote 41 down vote accepted

This isn't a matter of setting – it's simply because it's an over-used trope. It's a form of lazy writing / lazy scenario design.

In a D&D-genre game where the DM is not trying too hard to present a believable world, they might rely on stereotypes and stock situations with regularity: every cemetery is full of risen dead, every peasant town has sacks of gold just lying around to pay adventurers with, every evil necromancer wears black, every goblin speaks pidgin English, every dwarf is surly and has a Scottish accent, every monster fights to the death, every culture buries their dead instead of cremates them, etcetera, etcetera.

Because of this, the fact that every graveyard you visit is crawling with undead doesn't signify anything within the game world. It usually just means that the DM isn't going to bother putting a graveyard into the game unless it exists to contain undead.

There are ways to combat this trend. A DM can mention graveyards when they're not full of undead, to break the association of graveyard = undead for today's adventure. The DM can also use other locations that spawn undead, such as swamps, ancient battlefields where there was no-one to perform a proper burial, only graveyards that have been desecrated or contain an evil influence, or a necromancer's mountain fastness. They can also just use undead less often, keeping them for special adventures, to make undead appropriately rare in a world where the common people truly have no reason to obsessively cremate the dead.

Basically, there is nothing in the rules or the implied setting that says undead should be as common as some DMs make them be. And often, those very same DMs simply don't bother thinking too hard about what it implies when they over-use undead as a stock enemy. You can make undead common in a world – but as you note, this should have consequences on the rest of the setting if it is going to qualify as a well-craft setting.

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Indeed - in fact I know at least one setting (Hellfrost in Savage Worlds) where some cultures have stopped burying their dead exactly because of problems with undead rising. All depends on the setting. –  Phil Dec 22 '13 at 0:34
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Having a mandatory 'burn the dead immediately' policy might also annoy PCs trying to take fallen comrads to a temple to have Raise Dead performed on them ;) –  TysoThePirate Dec 22 '13 at 8:35
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@Nigralbus *shrug* Clearly the DM is not delivering the kind of game the OP is expecting, and not communicating about (or possibly even aware of) the difference either. That is not good DMing. We do judge here – it'd be pretty dull if we didn't use our judgement to answer questions. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 23 '13 at 18:33

Why don't the peasants simply burn the bodies?

The cultural benefits of burying whole bodies outweigh the exceedingly rare risk of desecration by those who work against the natural order as codified by the culture's rites and sacraments. One's life is given order and purpose, or at least a framework, by the rites of passage from birth thru death and beyond. It frames your life with your ancestors back into the time of legends. Keeping the bodies around strengthens this. Raising undead is an assault on a People.

Making undead is a clarion call of wrongness. It is normally exceedingly rare.. but for adventurers, it is one of the things that they are called upon to stop as soon as it is detected. The more a once civilized land degrades into barbarity the greater risk that this wrongness could grow unchecked. And when found, all the more difficult to stop. This is all the more true of wilderness areas that once held civilizations now long forgotten.


While burial is arguably the most common; of the other approaches, only ashes from a pyre can also contribute to funerary monumentation, buttressing living memory. Water burial or sky burial of relatives leaves no physical trace. Subsequent generations down the millennium miss out on a important part of a culture if no remains are left.

The rarity mentioned was on the time-scale of the culture that is secure enough to support burial. If during the whole arch of a civilization they were significantly preyed upon by necromancers or similar ilk; then Yes, they would either not bury and would use some other means... or they might as a society, embrace the dark, use carrion beetles to clean up the messiness, and have hoards of skeletons for a labor force or an army. Not a fun place.

Spontaneous undead spawning.. I view this like "spontaneous creation", not possible. There must be causation -- magically or clerically on the small scale or grand, something has to kick it off. If the gazillion ways this can happen are fully exercised by the DM, then there was either a discontinuity in the order of things (story line), or there is systemic madness in the population that continues to bury the dead full knowing that they will arise to kill the living (story line). But this (potentially) all good for the story line as it brings up further questions of why did this happen.. who did this.. how can we stop it?

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Pyres could present cultural benefits of their own. Apart from that, welcome to the site! –  LitheOhm Dec 24 '13 at 8:08
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As stated by another user, on this page, undead can spawn spontaneously. and there are a gillion types. While I agree with your point of having such rituals, we are talking non the less about peasants. either they are all religious zealots or, as you've said, SOME return as angry undead. But cemeteries full of undead do not fall under this template. I am talking about the simple fact that cemeteries full of undead CAN happen and they do, a lot. If you would burn every body and make it part of your ritual "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" necromancers would have to work at McDonalds. –  Discipol Dec 24 '13 at 8:30
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Spontaneous generation of undead is a big standard plot trope—you can't just say it doesn't happen. (In your own world you can, but this isn't in your world. That is super-important to allow for on an answers site that is supposed to give practical help with their actual situation, not just theorising about what you would do if you were their GM.) Add "infectious" undead such as ghouls and your argument becomes shakier yet. For these reasons, -1. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 3 at 9:33

Without adventurer intervention, cemeteries are a kind of black swan bet. That is, when a cemetery goes horribly wrong, there tends not to be anyone left to learn from the experience. There are, after all, essentially three kinds of towns: Those who burn or otherwise destroy the dead, those who bury the dead but whose dead do not return, and those who bury the dead and whose dead return to devour all of their tasty tasty brains. The first type continues to burn the dead, so nothing bad happens to them (from that score, anyway. They can still be wiped out by rampaging goblin warbands, angry evil wizards, corrupt tyrants, or passing tyrannosaurus rex.) the second type continue burying the dead because, why not? The third type died, and probably didn't get to put a warning out. If there are hordes of zombies, the most obvious explanation is that an 11th level spellcaster did it. (Create Undead being a 6th level spell.) That means someone with access to Contingency, Chain Lightning, and Circle of Death has decided they don't like your town. The best tip for survival for a village in a typical D&D game isn't "Don't bury your dead" it's "Do whatever the man with bat guano in his pants says."

That said, just because crazy random happenstance follows the PCs like a cat follows a wheelbarrow full of tuna doesn't mean everyone else has lives like this. Most towns go generations without anything exciting happening, and have lax security protocols on corpses as a result.

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Is this speculative, or are you building on something you can cite? It sounds great, but the Libris Mortis has whole sections on the myriad ways undead spontaneously arise. –  BESW Dec 22 '13 at 6:53
    
@BESW Speculative. I'm aware of Libris Mortis and edited slightly to account for spontaneous horde generation,but sans Libris Mortis, this makes sense (to me) in a bog standard D&D world. Even with the Mortis though, I think most of the answer stands. (Dead rising is unlikely, but wipes out most of the town when it happens) –  IgneusJotunn Dec 22 '13 at 17:34

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