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The animate dead spell has a range of touch and instantaneous duration and requires gems to be placed in the mouths or eye sockets of all of the corpses effected by the spell. (see below)

Range: Touch

Targets: One or more corpses touched

Duration: Instantaneous

This spell turns the bones or bodies of dead creatures into undead skeletons or zombies that follow your spoken commands.

Material Component You must place a black onyx gem worth at least 25 gp per Hit Die of the undead into the mouth or eye socket of each corpse you intend to animate. The magic of the spell turns these gems into worthless, burned-out shells.

How is one supposed to animate more than one undead at a time with this spell if it has an instantaneous duration and a touch range including placing the gems?

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Duration must not be confused with casting time. The casting time of animate dead is not Instantaneous, it's 1 standard action. Still short, but a round is 6 seconds long, which is infinitely longer than “instantaneous.”

Second, it's not necessary to place the gems during casting. It needs to be done for “each corpse you intend to animate”: that is, it must be done before the spell is complete, but you don't have to wait until starting to cast to place them. You can place the gems beforehand.

Third, you can only touch as many corpses as you can reach during your standard action. That means that the practical limit is how many corpses can be arranged around you so that you don't have to move to touch them all within a round, plus the round-limit of 6 “friendly” targets for multi-touch spells. (There's an argument to be made that that rule literally doesn't apply to anything that isn't your friend, but in terms of guidance on how to make animate dead's multi-touch effect actually function, that's the best that D&D 3.5e provides, and I find the more restrictive reading far too literal to be part of a functional game.)

So to use animate dead on multiple corpses, you stand beside all the corpses you intend to animate, place the gems, then cast the spell and touch them all during the casting time. The spell's effect is instantaneous once the spell is cast.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Regarding touching targets, don't forget that there are often other forms/means of touching to consider. A Druid who has managed to get this on his list might well be an Ironmaw with multiple 60ft tentacles (accessible at 13HD, if I recall correctly). As a DM, I would reasonably allow this to touch more creatures than a normal humanoid that has only 5ft reach. \$\endgroup\$ – Alphaeus Jan 22 '18 at 21:47
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First, placing the onyx isn't part of casting the spell animate dead but, instead, required for the spell animate dead to affect a particular corpse: "You must place a black onyx gem worth at least 25 gp per Hit Die of the undead into the mouth or eye socket of each corpse you intend to animate" (PH 199 but emphasis mine), strongly implying placement can be done beforehand. I've not heard of a DM demanding the spell's onyx be stuffed into the intended-to-be-animated corpses simultaneous with the spell coming into effect. (A DM that claims that the spell animate dead simply can't be cast by most creatures because they can't perform the actions necessary to cast the spell should've made his objections to PC necromancers clear to the players before a player opted to play one!)

Second, the Player's Handbook on Range says, in part, that

Some touch spells, such as teleport and water walk, allow you to touch multiple targets. You can touch as many willing targets as you can reach as part of the casting, but all targets of the spell must be touched in the same round that you finish casting the spell. (175)

In other words, the typical magician prepares the corpses first by stuffing them full of onyx then by arranging them around him. After doing so, then he casts animate dead, touching the prepared corpses as part of the spell.

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