Grave Goods
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Basic Information

Grave Goods are material possessions included in a burial, typically for the benefit of the dead person in the afterlife - either for their direct use, to pay various fees and tolls in the hereafter or merely to indicate their status in life to those on the other side. Depending on culture, such goods may be the real thing, may be symbolically "killed" (smashed, burned or broken) so that they too pass over with the deceased, or may be entirely symbolic (as in models or paintings of the things in question). Symbolic and real goods may be mixed in a given burial but ceremonial destruction tends to be an either/or.

Also, some cultures may restrict burial goods to tokens (usually something that indicates the deceased status) whilst some may make a genuine effort to send the departed on with everything they need for a household in the afterlife. Alternatively the goods may be given as tokens of esteem by mourners - the greater the value of the goods thrown in the hole with you, the more well regarded you are. It is not unknown for these possessions to include animals and even people - with the latter sometimes volunteering for the role1 … and sometimes not2.

Obviously, these would seem to be a great source of treasure … but it would also seem sensible to wait until the culture that buried the grave goods has itself passed on. Robbing the graves of those that the local population consider their ancestors is generally unsafe.

Of course, robbing the graves of "the ancients" may not be safe either - quite apart from the health risks inherent in poking about in manky old tombs and the offchance of traps, where grave goods really do serve a function there is also the possibility of the deceased objecting in person to the burglary of their resting place.

Conversely, some cultures may spend a day of the dead festival topping up grave goods - possibly by sacrificing food and drink (and maybe other consumables) at the tombs of their ancestors3.

Grave goods can also be added to a cremation … but are much less recoverable from the remains. That said, scavenging valuable remains from cremation ashes might be seen as acceptable - albeit pretty much limited to those most prepared to risk badly burned hands and feet racing to dig about in the cooling embers.

The transition from grave goods to no-grave goods (or vice versa) can be an important marker in the development of a culture (for example, the lack of grave goods in a Roman cemetery tends to indicate a Christian burial and, if able to track the burials by time, gives a picture of the Christianisation of the surrounding area).


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Amusing if a specific culture worked entirely with symbolic grave goods - PCs may spend a great deal seeking out the tomb of a king of that culture, famous for the richness of his burial, only to find that the place is pretty much a 25mm scale diorama of a kingdom lavishly fitted out with teeny-tiny luxury goods. Amusing once anyway.
    • Although valuable to the right sort of character. The diorama might have valuable information, or be useful in some kind of sympathetic magic.
  • Alternatively, PCs might be landed with the task of burying a dead comrade - including arranging for suitable grave goods. This is where having mechanics for honour and/or social standing come in useful - players who take a gamist approach, looting and discarding the corpses of their dead "friends" can find that it really comes back to haunt them4.
    • Obliging them to do so for retainers might reduce the rates of attrition amongst their employees…
  • If grave goods actually do pass over, this might have any number of interesting implications.
    • A BBEG in the afterlife might be defeated by defiling his tomb, or a dead hero might be empowered by sneaking some modern weapons in…
    • Grave goods, especially of the symbolic kind, could lead to odd economic effects.
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