Fire, Earth, and Sky – Oh My! Looking at Burial Traditions in Divinity: Original Sin II

One of the first video games that I got hooked on during the start of the pandemic (that wasn‘t Animal Crossing) was Divinity: Original Sin II. At the time, it had been years since I played a fantasy role-playing game from a series I wasn’t already familiar with, so honestly? I had a great time becoming enraptured by the new lore of Divinity II...which, of course, means I spent my entire first play-through (all 60+ hours of it!) overanalysing everything and looking at every single aspect from the perspective of an archaeologist with anthropological training. Yes, I am an insufferable gamer who cannot play anything normally, it is a true tragedy.

Unsurprisingly, the thing that drew my attention instantly was a cemetery area called “Stonegarden”, which was inclusive of nearly all the races in the world of Divinity II (except for the Undead, for…uh, obvious reasons, I guess?). As such, there was a variety of burial practices in place, which is particularly fascinating to me, as someone whose last four years were devoted to funerary archaeology and differing burial rites. So, let’s examine the different practices on display, and how they may (or may not) connect to real-life funerary rites in the past and present!

By Fire

A funeral pyre that is forever in flames as part of the Lizard burial traditions in Stonegarden Cemetery

In the world of Divinity: Original Sin II, Lizards are customarily cremated in a funeral pyre that is constantly burning. Based on the interactions the Player Character can have with the spirit of a deceased Lizard, it is an utmost shame to not be given these rites after death, thereby emphasising how important this particular act is for the Lizard culture.

Although I have yet to find an example of a never-ending funeral pyre, the basic concept of burning remains can be found in cultures throughout the world, and is still commonly practiced today. Archaeologically speaking, cremated bone is often identified by the presence of burnt bone – but not just burnt bone alone! Without context, burnt bone (human or animal) can be the result of numerous situations: cooking, accidental burning, cremation, etc. As such, it is important to find further context to indicate cremation: urns, grave goods, even the pyre site itself. It should be noted that humans are not the only ones to be cremated – animals have been found as cremated remains in the archaeological record as well! For example, Anglo-Saxon cremations have revealed mixed assemblages of human and animal remains, usually a horse or dog. With this in mind, it is likely that these animals were companions for the deceased – unfortunately, it is also notoriously difficult to differentiate between human/animal cremated bone, so we may not fully understand how prevalent (or not prevalent) this practice is (Whyte 2001, Bond and Worley 2006).

By Earth

A coffin with a Human skeleton that is waiting to be buried in Stonegarden Cemetery

A more ubiquitous and familiar burial tradition is practiced by the Humans of Divinity II (ugh, why are we always so boring!), who tend to practice inhumations, or burying remains underground. Inhumations, alongside cremations, are probably among the most common forms of funerary practice in the world, as well as the one most associated with the idea of funerary traditions. That said, it is interesting to consider how diverse inhumations can be in practice, with varieties in number of bodies, grave goods, social status (or lack thereof), overall treatment of the body, etc. To be honest, this topic is probably worth exploring in another blog post!

An ancestor tree, grown from the corpse of an Elf, located in Stonegarden Cemetery

In contrast, the Elves of Divinity II are not just buried in the ground – they become trees. Given the longer lifespan of Elves, death is rare and thus cause for massive ritual and rites. As cannibalism is already commonly practiced in Elven culture (which is actually a gameplay mechanic, as they are able to gain knowledge through memories of the dead they consume), it is common funerary practice for Elves to consume the heart of the deceased. The rest of the remains are then submerged into a pit filled with blood, eventually replaced in time with an ancestor tree, which has been directly grown from the dead.

Although there is no evidence for human-to-tree transformation beyond myths and folklore, we can see a similar focus on the tree as a symbol in funerary practices of the past. For example, it has been noted that tree-like features have appeared in ritual and funerary contexts during the Early Bronze Age in northern Europe, including the physical use of oak coffins in barrow burials (Fahlander 2018).

Similar traditions have continued into the modern age, particularly with the wave of ecological consciousness that would begin to include cemeteries and burial practices in the 1990’s, with environmentally-friendly inhumations becoming popular in countries such as the United Kingdom and Japan (Boret 2014). More recently, businesses have attempted to legally market more ecological solutions for burial in an even more environmentally-conscious world; one example is the Capsula Mundi, which consists of a biodegradable capsule that holds the deceased and eventually degrades to allow the remains to provide nutrients to a tree sapling planted above (Erizanu 2018).

By Sky

At the top of a tower in Stonegarden Cemetery lies Dwarven corpses, which are consumed by condors

Finally, the Player Character can find a lone tower in Stonegarden. Heading up the stairs, the Player Character will find the skeletal corpses of Dwarves laid below circling condors (a type of vulture) in the sky, with one perched nearby, eating one of the corpses. Most people will instantly connect this with the concept of “Sky Burials”, a practice that is most associated with Tibet, but is also practiced as part of Zoroastrianism in India (Kushwaha 2016). It has been theorised that this practice (or some variation of it) may have also been practiced in parts of Prehistoric Britain, specifically as a mode of excarnation, which broadly describes most practices of defleshing and disarticulation of the body (Carr and Knüsel 1997, Best and Mulville 2017).

I think, among many other misconceptions that folks have about archaeology, that the concept of funerary traditions is quite stifled and otherwise limited to inhumations and cremations. In reality, there is actually a beautifully diverse spectrum of traditions – and its not just limited to the ones discussed here. And I think that is one of the best things about archaeology – it can be such an expansive moment for your mind, seeing the ways in which human engagement with abstract concepts such as death have changed over time.

Also, I don’t know if anyone is actually going to read until the end of this post but I need to confess that I still haven’t finished Divinity II because I think I built my character wrong and the last boss battle is really hard…

References

Best, J. and Mulville, J. (2017) Birds in Death: Avian Archaeology and the Mortuary Record in the Scottish Islands. The Bioarchaeology of Ritual and Religion. pp. 179-192. Oxbow Books.

Bond, J.M. ad Worley, F.L. (2006) Companions in Death: the Roles of Animals in Anglo-Saxon and Viking Cremation Rituals in Britain. Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. pp. 89-98.

Boret, S.P. (2014) Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship, and the Culture of Death. Routledge.

Carr, G. and Knüsel, C. (1997) The Ritual Framework of Excarnation by Exposure as the Mortuary Practice of the Early and Middle Iron Ages of Central Southern Britain. Reconstructing Iron Age Societies: New Approaches to the British Iron Age. pp. 167 – 173. Oxbow Books.

Erizanu, P. (2018) The Biodegradable Burial Pod that Turns Your Body into a Tree. CNN: EcoSolutions. Retrieved from: https://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/03/world/eco-solutions-capsula-mundi/index.html

Fahlander, F. (2018) The Relational Life of Trees: Ontological Aspects of “Tree-Ness” in the Early Bronze Age of Northern Europe. Open Archaeology 4(1). pp. 373 – 385.

Kushwaha, S. (2016) Vultures in the Cultures of the World. Asian Journal of Agricultural and Life Sciences 1(2). pp. 34-40.

Larian Studios (2017). Divinity: Original Sin II. Bandai Namco Entertainment.

Whyte, T.R. (2001) Distinguishing Remains of Human Cremations from Burned Animal Bones. Journal of Field Archaeology 28(3-4). pp. 437 – 448.

“Death Positivity” for Pets: Are We Changing Our Attitudes Towards the Death Of Animals?

Content Warning – Today’s blog post will talk at length about animal death and will have some photos of taxidermy animals. Please proceed with caution and feel free to skip the blog post entirely if this is too upsetting.

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Death Salon on Instagram “Our director_s personal haul from #deathsalonboston including moulagedecire[...]
Caitlyn Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death, gives a talk at a Death Salon event in Seattle (Photo Credit: @DeathSalon on Instagram)
The “Death Positivity” movement has truly become part of the mainstream discourse recently, ranging from a general increase in appreciation for all things aesthetically macabre, to more organized events that educate others on death and the culture surrounding it. Arguably at the forefront of this movement in the United States is Caitlyn Doughty, a mortician who started the Order of the Good Death as a means of engaging with death and dying in a more positive manner and combatting the anxieties that surround death in modern society (Troop 2013). Doughty eventually began working with other organizers to create “death salons” – based on 18th century intellectual salons, these events gather academics, professionals, and creatives (such as musicians, artists, performers, and even chefs!) together to discuss aspects of death and the culture around death (Rosenbloom 2013).

But while our attitudes towards human death may be changing, what about our attitudes towards animal death? This may be a more complicated question than I originally thought – after all, given our utilisation of animals as subsistence, product manufacturers, and sometimes companions, humans will find themselves constantly confronting animal death. However, there are two specific examples of recent trends that I’ve noticed as someone who consistently works with animal remains in their everyday life…

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Alex Fitzpatrick ( afitzpatrickarchaeology) • Instagram photos and videos
A typical array of “vulture culture” collections, processed and used in artwork by artist and seller Ossaflores (Photo Credit: @Ossaflores on Instagram)

Perhaps one example of changes towards animal death is the popularisation of “vulture culture” online – this term often refers to enthusiasts for collecting animal remains, either as skeletal elements or as taxidermies. Not everyone in the community processes their own remains, but everyone expresses a passion for collecting specimens via online sellers or by finding naturally defleshed remains in the wild. Some enthusiasts are also artists that incorporate animal remains into their artwork somehow.  It is usually emphasised that “vulture culture” collections are derived from naturally deceased animals as part of their ethics (Miller 2017).

screenshot_2018-10-30-f09d9493f09d94aff09d94a2f09d94a0f09d94a6f09d94acf09d94b2f09d94b0-e284adf09d94aff09d94a2f09d949ef09d94b1f09d94b2f09d94af.jpg
An example of “pet aftercare” in the form of full taxidermy, done by Precious Creatuer Taxidermy (Photo Credit: @PreciousCreature on Instagram)

Another example of “animal death positivity” could also be seen in the rise of pet mortuary businesses that specialise in “alternative aftercare”. This can either be as a full taxidermy piece, as a partial piece (for example, preserved tails or paws), or in skeletal form. Precious Creature Taxidermy, an alternative aftercare and taxidermy business run by Lauren Lysak in California, offers various aftercare services in lieu of what we may consider “traditional human funerary services” that includes the previously mentioned processes as well as cremation (Lysak 2018). Although it may seem a bit macabre to taxidermy one’s pet, you could also consider this as a deeper acceptance of death and its constant presence around all of us…in taxidermy form.

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Alex Fitzpatrick ( alexleefitz) • Instagram photos and videos

So, are we entering a new phase of “death positivity” with regards to animals? Do we even have a right to feeling “death positive” towards non-human species – after all, of course, many animal deaths are directly caused by human activities. I think that, ultimately, this is a very complicated topic that has many layers to it regarding concepts of posthumanism, of ethics, of agency, and so on – perhaps this requires another, more lengthy blog post! However, at least with regards to how humans experience the death of animals, specifically pets, I think we are making strides to better understanding the processes of death and utilising some aspects of “death positivity” as we apply it to humans in our overall understanding of the concept as a whole.

References

Lysak, L. (2018) About Precious Creature Taxidermy. Precious Creature Taxidermy. Retrieved from http://www.preciouscreaturetaxidermy.com/new-page.

Miller, L. (2017) What is Vulture Culture? Vulture Gear Blog. Retrieved from https://vulturegear.com/blogs/vulture-gear-blog/what-is-vulture-culture

Rosenbloom, M. (2013) Death Salon LA…and Beyond! Death Salon. Retrieved from https://deathsalon.org/2013/11/04/death-salon-la-and-beyond/.

Troop, S. (2013) Death Salon Interviews Caitlyn Doughty. Death Salon. Retrieved from https://deathsalon.org/2013/10/02/death-salon-interviews-caitlin-doughty/.