Mass Grave
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Basic Information

Crudely put, a mass grave is little more than a landfill site for human1 corpses.

There's no absolute standard for what constitutes a mass grave - some cultures regard it as entirely normal to bury an entire family in the same hole2, whilst others regard solitary burial as the norm (or don't bury at all) - so the rule of thumb is that it's the attitude that makes a mass grave rather than simple fact of having lots of dead people in one place. The idea of landfilling dead people.

Mass graves tend to occur when the supply of dead people overwhelms those available to bury them - natural disasters, famines and epidemics are common sources, but then so are battles and massacres. When there's lots of dead to dispose of in a hurry, mass graves are the natural result.

The other, more prosaic cause, is the presence of corpses that no-one is prepared to pay to bury. In the early modern period, rapid urbanisation often lead to extensive slums inhabited by people without the means to bury their dead (or dislocated migrant workers with no-one to look out for them in death) and, as such, the city tended to be left with a fairly frequent supply of corpses that had to be disposed of. Social infrastructure being pretty poor, these unfortunate dead were disposed of in the cheapest manner possible, which usually involved being tossed into a common pit in a potter's field or public cemetery.

For those who care about such things, burial rites in such a location are usually scanty to non-existant and those who go into them are frequently anonymous. Also, the bigger the mass of corpses, the less efficiently they decay, which can lead to some really appalling environmental problems.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Wherever you are, a mass grave is normally a bad sign - something unpleasant has happened here.
    • Even more so if it's one you didn't know about beforehand.
    • Digging into one during building work is an old form of hilarity. In much of Western Europe this is likely to lead to an immediate panic as everyone tries to work out if it's a plague pit or not. Either way, the answer may not be comforting.
    • Where ghouls are common, the reverse of this process may be at least as horrifying - workers open a known mass grave only to find that it is more or less empty apart from a few well gnawed bones and rags. ("Rats gentlemen. Very big rats. Definitely.")
  • A good starting point for a bad place.
  • In a lot of RPGs, PCs are probably responsible for a fair few of these.
  • PCs may be especially overjoyed to find that someone they were looking for (perhaps someone they need to retrieve for resurrection?) ended up in one.
  • Forensic type PCs may find themselves investigating one of these, for example to find evidence for a war-crimes trial.
  • The neglected burial rites may have consequences in some settings.
  • These places may also interest necromancers of the nastier variety, possibly after corpses to meddle with or possibly seeking adipocere and similar decay products for ritual use.
    • Or possibly of a benevolent variety - suddenly finding out about one that you didn't know about is a good mystery, and suggests a lot of potential unfinished business.
  • Besides people seeking to take things out of mass graves, it's entirely possible that someone will take the view that one extra corpse would not make much difference and use the common pit to rid themselves of an awkward burden.
    • Speaking of which, waking up in one of these is probably not a good way to start an adventure, especially if you don't know why you are there. Best get out, quick, before someone starts throwing quicklime about or capping off. Or before the rats and ghouls come for you.
    • Worth noting that testimony concerning a fair few massacres has come from people that found themselves alive in a mass grave.
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