Issue One | Spring 2001
The Faultless Contemplation of Decay
A discussion of the fear of death and dissolution by Héjesh hiKolúmra, translated by Malcolm Health, with commentary
HEJESH HIKOLUMRA is a mid-level teaching priest of Sárku in Bey Sü, and on my last visit there, consented to allow me to interview him. He proved to be a most gracious man, and revealed to me the basic methodology used by his temple to train students and junior priests to convert their natural aversion to death and decay to the awe and reverence exhorted by his temple. He himself cast our conversation into the form of this essay. The translation has been done in a free, rather than literal, style, and many of the graceful conventions of the Tsolyáni have been left out. The translator asks his readers pardon, and thanks Héjesh hiKolúmra for his time and attention.
Many people can accept that Lord Sárku rules the grave, and matters pertaining to the body after death; they can even understand conceptually the most holy mysteries of the continuance of the mind in the body after the passing of the spirit-soul. But when it comes to the comfort members of my priesthood exhibit in dealing with corpses, or when they hear of our ease when attending the putrescent remains of the departed, they quail with disgust and fright.
How then is it, you ask, that the members of our clergy avoid this?
Well, noble foreigner, it is not so deep a thing that I cannot tell you. We do not avoid it; we embrace it.
It is natural that all humans, indeed, all creatures with sentience, feel at once fear of the dead of their own kind, and disgust at the dissolution of their bodies. To see life flee, and the worm take its share is a hard thing, and goes against much of what we know as living beings.
There is also an instinctual reaction against the smells and sights associated with the decay of the body. This is natural as well.
However, my Lord teaches that in the infinite flow of time, the state of living is but a short thing, and death is as forever as may be. Given this, should we not come to terms with death and decay? Indeed, we must, if we are to say we have control of ourselves.
There are many levels of this, of course. There are few even in this temple who can state that they are fearless before some of the manifestations of death that one may encounter. But with the help of the great Worm, and devotion to His mysteries, all these fears may be overcome.
The first lesson that we give to the acolyte is that of the Contemplation of One’s Own Demise. The student sits in a cold and darkened chamber and is told to think on his mortality.
It does not matter in particular in what way he envisions the means of his death; the moment of death is of no importance to us. It is merely a gateway to greater knowledge.
There, he is encouraged to think about his death, the preparation of his body for burial, the weeping of his family, the sorrow and lamentation of his friends and loved ones, in as much detail as he can muster. The teacher will of course guide and encourage him in this process.
Indeed, this is a practice many could benefit from; since we all will die, should we not all be ready when the time comes?
But imagining oneself to be dead and focusing on the reactions of the living are but the first steps that the student takes. There are many more lessons to test and strengthen the student’s resolve.
To overcome our natural aversion to the sensory experience of decay, our acolytes assist with the preparation of the bodies of our departed faithful, and so gain experience with the remains of the dead. Experience, as we can all surely agree, is the surest tonic against fear. We make sure here at the temple that all our young clergy have the chance to experience this.
Furthermore, some of our departed brethren are honored for many years after their departure from life, and the students attend these vigils, within the tombs of the honored ones, keeping watch for many nights, in the darkness. There in the stillness of the sepulcher, the can experience the reality of the tomb, at least as clearly as the still living can, and can experience more closely the various states which the body transverses on its way to final dissolution. This practice we call the Honoring of the Spiraling Down to Dust.
It is important to remember that each acolyte will have an easier time with some practices and a harder time with others. I have described some of the basic rituals. For some students, this is not enough, and remedial work is needed. We have a special practice known as the Vigil of the Attendance to Decay, which is often just the thing to help the student over their difficulty.
It involves a vigil of some days, aided by special medicines that allow the student great clarity and obviate the need for sleep, so that they can observe a fresh corpse as it makes its way from a being that could almost be thought of as merely sleeping to what no one could mistake for anything other than a body in advanced decay. We have found this most efficacious. Indeed, many of the students who make this vigil are transformed from remedial cases to outstanding students by the experience.
Depending on what specialization the student is being trained for, there are yet still other practices that are common. For example, those who are being trained in the rigors of spell casting, and the attendant need for mental control and power, are often allowed to undertake the Night of Perceiving the Horizon of Death, which involves the student being immobilized in a trance, symbolically embalmed, interred in a grave prepared for the purpose, and fully entombed, for at least a day. For the more powerful minds, even longer periods serve to put an especially sharp edge on their clarity of thought, and many of our most powerful and skilled sorcerers have said that this ritual is one that they hark back to in times of need, calling upon the memory for strength. Some even observe the rite over and over again over the course of their careers; it reinvigorates them.
Finally, there are within our temple true devotees who wish to come as close to the reality of the Tomb as possible; for them we have the Ritual of the Transition to the Eternal, in which the practitioner is immured for a number of days with a corpse, tied immobile with the same cerements, literally bound to the object of the ritual, the better to undertake the contemplation of the sacred transition from merely living to ever-living in the holy Mystery of the Tomb.
Of course, not all our acolytes get to such advanced practices, and I am not at liberty to reveal the more sacred practices of the temple to outsiders.
It is my humble prayer that this essay will bring glory to the Worm, and elucidate the might of his Teachings.
So often, of all the Gods of Tsolyanu, Lord Sárku is seen as a terrible, chilling god, and His followers are often cast as enemies to player characters. The recent political situation aside, it is wise for us to remember that there are hundreds of thousands of worshippers of the Worm in Tsolyánu, and most of them are as friendly, easy to get along with, and generally honorable as one could wish. The central tenet of Sárku’s faith is that it is possible to live forever, albeit in changed form. Abstracted from the less pleasant aspects of being undead, is this not a desire that humans have had since time began? To be able to continue, with full mental and physical faculties, past the arbitrary limit set by the end of life, to continue to be with loved ones, to see one’s departed family and friends, to be able to have the additional time to complete a "life’s work" or some other project; all these things are very attractive to many.
Furthermore, this essay emphasizes another aspect of Sárku’s faith that is often overlooked; the discipline of the mind. It is with the continuation of the mind and the body that immortality can be achieved, and while the body can be magically sustained after life departs, the mind must be kept strong and supple. Far from being mindless, Sárku’s undead (at least at the higher levels) are as fully cogent as they were in life, if not even more so, for the lack of distraction. No more hunger, no more pain; the spirit-soul has departed, and so a clarity and purity of mind is achieved that the living can only dream of.
This also gives us insight into why there is a general ban on the use of undead forces in war. The undead do not operate with the same mental set as do the living, and thus have a different set of criteria for judging what is noble or ignoble action. That the undead are completely devoted to Sárku cannot be questioned; even the temple of Ksárul admits that the undead it creates are animated by means of power from one of Sárku’s planes, and thus belong to him. This goes a long way towards explaining, if not excusing, some of the excesses and atrocities that undead troops have committed in battle. If, in a quite literal way, your god sustained your second life, would you be hesitant to give the sacrifices demanded, or would you instead leapt to the opportunity with gladness and rejoicing?
While I doubt that any amount of explication can turn Sárku’s image around, keeping the motivations exposed in the above essay in mind will only help us play members of the Worm Lord’s temple better.