Passing Beyond

Death and the Afterlife

The cycle is never ending. It goes ever, ever on whether we want it to or not...  
Your life is but one small wave in a vast ocean.
— High Priestess Sepherene Tyshal
 
Everything comes from the universe, and it is to the universe that everything must eventually return with time- for existence is locked in a neverending cycle of birth, life, death, decay, and rebirth. The very nature of the universe itself is reliant of maintaining the balance of this cycle in order to function, and without it there is no existence at all. Even people, both Material natives and Extraplanars alike, aren't divorced from this cycle, but are a part of it like everything else... But what happens to them after that last tick of their clock is struck? Where do they go after they cease to exist as they originally were- and what impact, if any, does the religious beliefs they held in life have after it has ended?   True death remains one of the great mysteries of the universe and, as a result, there are few things definitively known about the process. Nonetheless, Archivists and Arcanists who have had a macabre fascination with this topic over the centuries have still been able to definitively prove certain truths. Notable, the truth that the process is directly tied to the various Planes of Existence, as well as the Weave itself. In common belief, however, the exact specifics of dying, as well as views concerning what awaits one at the end, vary from culture to culture depending on their own folklore and mythology.

Experiencing Death

 
O, Anndra. For all that it may be worth to you, I'd very much like to never be resurrected again.
— Sister Eilis Mèinn in her
journal after her resurrection
On the most basic of levels, as part of the process of creation a metaphysical power called a Spirit is formed from the Weave. The possession of the body by such a Spirit is what gives it essence, life, and a separate existence as an individual person. At death, the body and Spirit are separated from one another once again, ending this existence. Coming back is possible- but even in a world of such plentiful magic, few people come close to death and then live to actually tell about the experience.
  Those that do experience near death, however, often report incredibly similar experiences to one another- though the language used to describe those experiences is frequently culturally specific. And according to these recounted stories, the individual is usually abruptly aware of their death at the moment it occurs; if they were unconscious beforehand, this feeling is often described almost as if awakening from normal sleep- moving into awareness from the blackness of unconsciousness. If they died suddenly while conscious, however, it often feels more like taking a physyical step away from one's mortal body.   Those who have been been brought back from the brink of death desribe the healing process in similar terms- expressing that it feels much like stepping back into their body in the same way as death feels like stepping out of it. By contrast, however, individuals who have been resurrected frequently decribe the process as being forcefully yanked back, and shoved into their body again- often unwillingly, and quite painfully.

Customs of Death

  Goliath burial rites involve leaving their corpses on open cliffs for vultures. The cleaned bones are ground down into a fine powder, and used in body paint for spiritual rituals involving the ancestors.   Dwarves,however, prefer a combination of cremation and entombment- building elaborate stone tombs in their citidels, filled to their brim with niches of ornate urns to house the ashes of the dead.   After the events of the White War, Castians overhauled their entire belief system surrounding death- now performing semi-elaborate cremation ceremonies in an effort to prevent their dead from rising against them yet again.

Funerary and burial customs are as varied and numerous as the races themselves are, and so too are their names for the Afterlife; each culture weaves their own complex web of traditions and beliefs unique to them.

The Wandering Spirit

 

Journey

  When death occurs, one's Spirit automatically begins its journey to the afterlife... Spirits don't simply transport to their final destinations automatically after death, however. Instead, they must travel in the same manner as anyone in life- though they certainly have a much easier time crossing the boundaries between planes compared to those who are still mortal. Most who've experienced near death describe the beginning of this journey as an overwhelming desire to find the nearest extraplanar gateway- usually describing a silver thread appearing, leading to the proper location.   Driven by this unignorable desire to reach their final destination (and a deeply innate understanding of which destination that is for them), they cross through gateway after gateway, following the natural trajectory of the realms like any other extraplanar traveler. In this way, even with the silver thread, the journey may take days, months, or even years; the length of time is heavily dependant on the Spirit's ability to find the gateways, as well as their willingness to pass through them once found- and there are plenty of reasons many Spirits may fight the urge to pass on.   The ultimate point of the journey is to return to the outer planes of existence to await their reabsorption into the Weave so that the cycle may continue.

Destination

  Known as the Soul Forge to the Dwarves, Janatnaam to Fire Genasi, and Ta-Khara Diwa to the Ileri and Enethi, nearly every culture in the universe has its own names for the afterlife. Indeed, no two cultures can agree on its name, let alone a single description of it... Some may even have multiple afterlives based on various factors of one's life while living.   Whatever a culture chooses to call the final resting place of the Spirit after death, however, one thing has been verified over the centuries: The final resting places of Spirits aren't individual realms, but are ultimately the Ethereal and Liminal Planes of Existence in the universal model... And one's deeds in life do, in fact, matter in regards to which one the Spirit winds up in at the end.   The Blessed Dead- or those who performed good deeds in life and had little corruption of the Spirit at their time of death- pass on to the Ethereal Plane. The Forsaken Dead- or those with high levels of Corruption at death, typically due to an excess of bad deeds in life- however, pass on the the Liminal Plane instead. In both cases, the Spirit lives out a period of time in the realm, slowly dematerializing and eventually rejoining the Weave in order to be reborn again- a process which, much like the Spirit's initial journey, can take years or even centuries to complete.

Divinity + Death

  While many cultures believe in Divine or semi-Divine beings associated with the process of death, these Deities are frequently less involved than believed- especially as the Spirit's final resting place is neither the Abyssal nor the Celestial planes actually inhabited by the Divine. Instead, the real role of the Divine in many cases, is the enforcement of the process itself. Their exact involvement can take many forms depending on the Deity in question, however, and often varies in level.   Some, such as the Elven Sehanine, act as spiritual and metaphysical guides of sorts, greeting the Spirit at death and helping it through its journey. Others, such as the Ferenian Haegi and Haussa- or the Raven Queen and Lord of the End- record the memories and final moments of the dead, adding them to their great library so they're never forgotten, even after the Spirit rejoins the Weave.   Deities such as Bhaal, the adversarial Orcish God of Suffering and Shadow, however, corrupt the process of death- binding the Spirits of the ritually murdered to themself so they may continue to reap their power even in death. Meanwhile, Deities such as the Castrillian God Anndra and the Sarian Kástos, attempt to uphold the cycle- occasionally going to extremes to prevent the balance from being upset.
 

Upsetting the Balance

 
The battle to save our home was over... Our families were saved... But a fucking Phy'ithian managed to land a parting blow I couldn't mend. Sacrificing my own energy in my desperate attempts to bring him back did nothing. A touch on my shoulder brought me out of the cycle before I could fully drain myself, however; there, frozen, was the peaceful, etheral image of my partner. He smiled warmly before walking off into the distance- flowers sprouting in his footsteps... I knew then he was off to a better place than here.
— Capt. Keani Lohia-Vele reflecting on the death of
Capt. Halim Pulungan after the Battle of Glimmeriing Hill
Not every Spirit willingly accepts their death- though they're perfectly aware of the fact they're dead in the first place. When this sort of rejection happens, the Spirit may stick around as a Ghost. If they remain long enough, refusing to pass on, the Spirit may twist and warp over time, eventually becoming a Wraith or other immaterial creature of undeath.   A number of other more external factors may also prevent a Spirit from traveling to the afterlife as well, resulting in various forms of undead. For example, certain individuals who experienced particularly violent deaths could remain permanently tethered to the location of their death as a Poultergeist, Wraith, or other form until released; it is also possible to trap a Spirit outright, especially in some sort of magical item- such as a Ghost Lantern. Doing so likewise prevents the Spirit's journey and eventually corrupts it over time; and, of course, being unable to find a gateway at all will likewise slow or prevent the Spirit from passing on.   Though rare, allies in life can also reject a person's death- refusing to allow their fallen compatriot to leave. Some may go so far as to use various spells meant to return a Spirit to material form. This can manifest in many ways, and have a variety of consequence, especially since Necromancy remains one of the most difficult schools of magic to master- increasing the likelihood that things could go wrong.
  For one, returning to a material form requires a body to animate- whether your own, or anothers. Not just any body will work, however... Even if it's the individual's original body, it must still meet specific critieria- including not only a certain level of preservation of the body's original living condition, but also that the body has undergone certain rites to ensure the corpse is animated correctly in the first place; entering a body that has decomposed for too long, or which has been improperly prepared, may create any manner of undead. In all cases, the returning Spirit comes back as something far less than it originally was- if it even returns at all.  
Spells such as Reincarnate take this process one step further by ritually creating a new body from scratch entirely- bypassing the need for, and decreasing the possibility of botching, such preparations. This process in incredibly difficult, however, and the caster has little control over what body is produced; someone who was an Orc in life may find themselves in the body of a Halfling, simply because that's the way fate's coin fell during the ritual.
  For another, though, returning to the material realm is incredibly difficult in its own right; like a salmon swimming upstream, it's possible- but incredibly taxing on the Spirit of those who try it. The further they've traveled from their body, the more planes they've crossed in their journey, the harder it will be for them to return again. For that reason, it takes a Spirit with considerable strength to make the journey backwards even once- let alone multiple times. And each time the trip is made, the soul loses a bit more of itself to the Weave, making it even more difficult whenever the need arises.  
Forming a tether between the Spirit and the body they're being called back to makes the process easier and less taxing on them- though the Spirit still inevitably (and irrevocably) erodes with each resurrection; these tethers function much like a safety rope does, creating a tangible bond between the body and the Spirit and providing them with a clear path back to it.
 


Matt Mercer's Lingering Spirit Rules

  If a character is dead (not unconscious), and a resurrection is attempted, a Resurrection Challenge is initiated. During this process up to 3 members of the party may offer to help call back the deceased member's Spirit through contributing something to the ritual.   Contributing party members perform a relevant Skill Check based on how they wish to contribute to the ritual. The DC of the check adjusts based on how impactful the DM (or the deceased party member) feels the contribution would be. Additional advantage and disadvantage may apply based on how perfect, or off base, the contribution offered is.   After all contributions are completed, the DM then rolls a final Resurrection check with no modifiers. The base DC for the check is 10, but increases by 1 for every previous (successful) resurrection the character has undergone- signifying the slow erosion of the Spirit’s connection to this world. Each failed contribution check further increases the DC by 1. For each successful contribution to the ritual, however, the DC is decreased by up to 3, depending on the level of success.   Upon a successful resurrection check, the deceased's Spirit returns to the body (willingly or not), and the ritual succeeded. On a failed check, the Spirit does not return and the character is lost and cannot be resurrected again in that manner- though additional ressurection methods may allow the party to adventure to the planes of the dead in order to manually retrieve the deceased's Spirit via quest.


Cover image: Encyclopedias by James L.W
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Author's Notes

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Read Before You Comment
I absolutely love getting feedback on my setting and its worldbuilding. I love it even more when people ask questions about the things in it. I want both. I encourage both. And it makes me incredibly giddy whenever I get either.   However, there's a time and a place for critique in particular- mostly when I've actually asked for it (which usually happens in World Anvil's discord server). And when I do ask for critique, there are two major things I politely request that you do not include in your commentary:   ➤ The first is any sort of critique on the way I've chosen to organize or format something; Saleh'Alire is not a narrative world written for reader enjoyment... It's is a living campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons. To that end, it's written and organized for my players and I, specifically for ease of use during gameplay- and our organization needs are sometimes very different than others'.   ➤ Secondly, is any critique about sentence phrasing and structure, word choice, and so on; unless you've found a typo, i've blatantly misued a word, or something is unclear because of how I've worded it? Then respectfully: Don't comment on it; as a native English speaker of the SAE dialect, language critique in particular will almost always be unwelcome unless it's absolutely necessary.   If you want to ask questions, speculate, or just ramble? Go for it! Praise, of course, is always welcome too (even if it's just a casual "this is great")- and if you love it, please don't forget to actually show that love by liking it. Because I genuinely do enjoy watching people explore and interact with my setting, and ask questions about it, and I'd definitely love to hear from you... Just be respectful about it, yeah?


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7 Dec, 2020 10:24

This goes on my reading list. Don't have time to browse through it right now, but what little I gleaned sound fascinating!

Author of prize-winning RPG settings Dark Shadows and Cinders of the Cataclysm. Designer of the narratively focused Celenia D10 RPG System.
7 Dec, 2020 11:26

Let me know what you think once you do :D

3 Jan, 2021 23:45

As always, it's a joy to read your works. They're so well prepared, well explained, and everything holds together without quirks or major "plot holes". I like how you've covered quite frankly everything in this article. Highly enjoyable read!

Author of prize-winning RPG settings Dark Shadows and Cinders of the Cataclysm. Designer of the narratively focused Celenia D10 RPG System.
4 Jan, 2021 01:53

I like taking what DnD gives you throughout all its editions (which, honestly isn't much I'm finding) , and then finding a way to expand and cohesify it; plot holes bother me, and I feel like one of the most important parts of worldbuilding is understanding the fundamentals of your world. I'm glad that came through and that you enjoyed it!