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I'm working on the layout of a fairly large crypt/small catacomb (for a RPG dungeon), and I want it to be built out of necessity (thus justifying its size, relatively frequent visitation, and egalatarian usage patterns) as opposed to the more typical case where a crypt or tomb will be built for the burial of wealthy folk (with more money yielding a bigger crypt to spend the afterlife in), while commoners simply get a coffin in the ground.

So what geotechnical conditions or concerns would require the construction of an elaborate, communal burial crypt/catacomb instead of simply sticking the dead in coffins and burying them in a normal way? Furthermore, whatever these conditons are need to be able to support a forest or forest-like ecosystem around it for the living to operate in.

Also, this crypt would be built primarily from stone, with rot-resistant timbering (similar to redwood or cedar) available for key tension members -- it needs to be built to last.

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    $\begingroup$ If I were you I'd look up the conditions around new Orleans. There are a lot of above ground mausoleums and such. $\endgroup$ – Warm Shadow May 16 '17 at 1:09
  • $\begingroup$ @WarmShadow that's exactly where my image comes from... :) $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 16 '17 at 1:10
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn I noticed. I had posted commented just before refreshing and I saw your answer. Lol xD $\endgroup$ – Warm Shadow May 16 '17 at 1:15
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    $\begingroup$ Look at places where this is the real thing. For example, New Orleans has limited space to devote to burying, and ground water. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 16 '17 at 1:35
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    $\begingroup$ New Orleans and South Louisiana in general are very good examples of why a mausoleum would be used. The highest elevation in the entire state is only a little over 500ft above sea level, with much of South LA at or below sea level. New Orleans itself is around -7-20 ft sea level. Ground water is an issue everywhere, making coffin burial a bit problematic. Plus there are plenty of areas with very rich and lush vegetation. There's also the very strong religious (various) bent in the area. It would probably make a great model for what you're looking for. $\endgroup$ – Shawn May 16 '17 at 18:54

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A slightly different answer: Quicksand!

Imagine a region with both a high water table, flat terrain, suitable clay/silt soil and frequent earthquakes. In these earthquakes, the ground would tend to liquefy and turn into a form of quicksand - and wooden coffins, together with their occupants, are buoyant in quicksand.

After several earthquakes in which all the graveyards saw the dead quite literally rising from the grave to general horror, the building of a nice, solid, non-liquefying catacomb would seem appropriate.

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    $\begingroup$ You don't even need earthquakes -- quick (Leda) clays will liquefy quite nicely under sustained rainstorm conditions... $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay May 16 '17 at 18:43
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It is a good question. What you want is not a crypt but a catacomb. It looks like proper catacombs for mass burials always turn on issues of use of space and use of land. Wikipedia is excellent for the Roman and Parisian and the reasons for the two were very different. I also found reading here: http://mentalfloss.com/article/64564/7-worlds-most-fascinating-and-beautiful-catacombs

I found it stated that the Roman catacombs were built because burial of corpses was illegal in the city. I cannot find out why that was but it is not a bad idea if land is at a premium. I think the main reason that there were galleries upon galleries of burial chambers and passages is that families had an obligation to continue honoring the dead, which they did with fancy art and visits. If you have an obligation like that you want to be sure your neighbors know you are honoring it, and you want your tributes to be out where they can be seen. And: it was the done thing at the time for rich and poor alike.

The Parisian ones were very different. I read that people were buried in the city, for centuries, and it got nasty with heaps of bodies falling thru walls etc. The Parisians had a huge labyrinth of mines handy and so the bones of millions (!) of bodies were exhumed and moved to these old mines. And arranged in artistic patterns all mixed together. They saved the freakiest bones they found for the special freak bone room. Sort of the opposite of the Roman catacombs as regards respecting your ancestors.

The Vienna catacombs are similar to the Parisian: an expedient and space-frugal way to store lots of bodies. I read that the Vienna ones got started after 11,000 people died during a plague and they had to go somewhere.

All these catacombs came about as a consequence of high population density and need for economical use of land in storage / disposal of corpses.

Finally, the under-construction Jerusalem catacombs. This is a different reason again and I think one that would be good for your RPG. Jews want to be buried in Jerusalem. Religious preferences as regards site were also apparently important to the early Christians buried in the Roman catacombs: they wanted to be near the graves of martyrs.

I could imagine in your campaign something important happened at a given site such that for hundreds of years people insisted on being buried there, and to accommodate the demand efficiently, catacombs under (or over) the site were constructed. Times changed and the old religion and old catacombs were forgotten...

ADDENDUM /Interesting, but not needed in the forest, and not geotechnical. – RonJohn 8 hours ago / RonJohn is right on both counts. So: a clarification. One is as regards the forest. If the catacombs have been forgotten, a forest may have grown up. The people currently there are not the same people who built the catacombs. Alternatively, the sacred event that caused this site to be the place for burials just happened to take place in the forest.

Re geotechnical: if you want a grave in proximity to the grave of a martyr, it is easier to accomplish if you have 3 dimensions to work with (multi-tiered catacomb) as opposed to only 2 (graveyard). This was the case for the abovementioned Christians.

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting, but not needed in the forest, and not geotechnical. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 16 '17 at 4:39
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    $\begingroup$ Burial of corpses was forbidden within the Pomerium (the sacred boundary of the City of Rome), because this was considered consecrated ground; for this reason Roman funeral monuments were always built outside the walls. The sacred nature of the land inside the walls gave rise to many restrictions. $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 16 '17 at 9:27
  • $\begingroup$ Other cultures used consecrated ground specifically for burials. $\endgroup$ – Willk May 16 '17 at 14:08
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Flooding, shortage of arable land, shallow soil on rocky ground.

Regular flooding is nasty for burial, you really don't want coffins and corpses floating back up to the surface as the land is disturbed.

Easily excavated land for burial is also usually your best land for farming. How much of that land can you afford to give up to the burial plot as your population expands? Perhaps the people are mostly hill farmers, keeping sheep and goats on rocky ground that basically can't be dug at all. The same is true if you have a high water table.

With all these situations you have to start looking at other body disposal options, whether crypts, caves, mounds, cairns, or sky burial.

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Geothermal. There are many place in New Zealand that will cook anything buried! That would not make for a pleasant cemetery to visit.

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  • $\begingroup$ But then again, implied cremation provides you with a lot of space to (re)use. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak May 16 '17 at 9:50
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think this would be a problem. Just bury your people packed in salt, and you'd get people jerky. Your dead relatives don't stink, and they get a reasonable mummification without spending all that money on embalming fluids. This is big plus if your culture has to keep the same body in the afterlife. $\endgroup$ – kingledion May 16 '17 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ Ground so hot that it cook things seems contraindicated to forests. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 16 '17 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ cratersofthemoon.co.nz/index.html certainly can have Forrest around and in a geothermal area. The active smaller vents often move about, causing localised hotspots. People in these areas tap into hot water bores for heating and they are quite shallow. In early Times, baskets of food were cooked in boiling hot pools. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Watson May 17 '17 at 6:17
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In parts of Spain (and no doubt elsewhere) people perform above ground burials because the ground is too hard to dig in without heavy machinery. Using power tools like pneumatic hammers graves can be dug into the bedrock but in the past, without such, they couldn't so they were forced to build above ground burial sites. Tradition now dictates above ground burials even though technically they're no longer needed (though it might still be more economical).

This is no doubt quite similar to the practice of "sky burial" in Nepal and other mountainous areas.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ditto permafrost. If it lasts all year, of course. $\endgroup$ – RedSonja May 16 '17 at 8:45
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Easy-peasy: a high water table, which prevents you from digging "6 feet under".

EDIT: updated pictures.

enter image description here

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ This looks to be quite a promising start! Did you mean to put more in though? $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay May 16 '17 at 1:11
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    $\begingroup$ Sonce the picture doesn’t add any information, I'd say this should be a comment just like the others mentioning this. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 16 '17 at 1:37
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz -- or the answer expanded (which is what my comment is trying to prompt for :) $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay May 16 '17 at 1:46
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    $\begingroup$ While the updated pictures are better, I argue that your answer relies too much on them. The only text part of your answer which actually answers the question is "a [too] high water table", all other explanation is left for the pictures, which is bad practice. A good answer should include the full answer in text and only use pictures to show example or to clarify what is written; otherwise, if the pictures is lost, then the answer is rendered worthless. I think your answer would become better if you write down the explanation as text. $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička May 16 '17 at 8:36
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion I do agree that a picture is far quicker to read and is often more informative than a long wall of text, but that requires the picture to stay around for as long as the answer does; when the picture disappears, it's worth 0 words. The consensus of this site is that pictures used to enhance an answer is okay, while answers that is essentially only a picture is not okay. $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička May 16 '17 at 13:06
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There are plenty of ways to make "dig a hole and stick a coffin in it" impractical:

  • High water table
  • Thin soil over shallow bedrock
  • Quicksand, quickclay, or other liquefaction-prone soils (coffins float to the surface)
  • Rocky or hard soils that are difficult to dig
  • Shallow geothermal features
  • and so on...

They all have one thing in common, though: they preclude forests. A tree needs deep, stable soil for its roots, so if you can grow trees, you can bury coffins.

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New Orleans is an area you will want to look at for inspiration. Also be aware that any low lying area that has massive storms such as hurricanes pushing storm surge inland before them is going to have problems with newly interred caskets coming out of the ground.

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I'm not sure what kind of world you are building here, but what about the thought that burying the dead in the earth attracts certain unwanted elements (bandits, ghosts, monsters, microbes, whatever). Because the resulting attracted things affect both rich and poor, the catacombs could be necessary for the safety of everyone. Just a thought.

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  • $\begingroup$ archive.org/stream/TheGraveyardRats/… $\endgroup$ – A. L. Flanagan May 16 '17 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ Why the down vote? He's building an RPG. $\endgroup$ – ozone May 19 '17 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ I respectfully disagree with the downvote, so +1. :-) $\endgroup$ – A. L. Flanagan May 19 '17 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ Why thank you kind sir. The world is right again! $\endgroup$ – ozone May 19 '17 at 20:20
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For some reason currently unknown to the PCs, the dead in this region arise on their own after a time to hunt and kill the living.

The only way to stop it is to completely encase burial areas in a maintained magic field that is channeled through the specially-designed mausoleum walls. This mausoleum, being for the public good, is funded through taxation of all members of the society.

Maybe this is why bodies are not cremated in this region, too: even the dust of the cremated dead comes to life after a time and attacks the living.

It's similar to Henry Taylor's answer, but avoids a lot of the contrivance related to sneaking ninja-necromancers.

Whatever interesting property of your world or this region of your world that causes this can be be revealed at a later date.

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    $\begingroup$ Zombies aren't (usually?) a geotechnical condition. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 16 '17 at 18:29
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Imagine a city like Civita di Bagnoregio or Orvieto, where the city is built on a tall butte with limited space. Eventually; the townsfolk will run out of room and options dwindle. Do we carry the dead all the way down this mountain? Or maybe we should start to build a mausoleum of some sort... assuming that your culture forbids cremation, it might be a profitable enterprise to dig out the hill

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We build crypts to keep the dead inside. You see, our enemies have a lot of necromancers and high-level clerics at their command. Back when we just buried our deceased, our enemy would sneak into our grave yards and dig up their remains. Then, while we are still grieving from loosing our no longer living loved one, its corpse would charge into town and start killing everyone. More often than not, we were too emotionally confused to fight back. We lost many to the cold claws of our fallen.

Now our loved ones sleep through eternity, safely sealed behind stone walls and locked doors.

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  • $\begingroup$ While security is a good reason to have crypts -- I don't think it'd be enough justification by itself to do that, especially for commonsfolk who wouldn't have the money to afford such constructions on their own... $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay May 16 '17 at 1:09
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    $\begingroup$ Easy fix. Have a few rich people get killed by the reanimated corpses of their poorer neighbors, and their surviving kin will become very generous in funding the "locked" community burial crypts. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor May 16 '17 at 1:15
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    $\begingroup$ Clever justification, but locks can be picked and hinged doors opened (you've got to have a way to load the next body in a few years) easier than 72 cu.ft can be dug up. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 16 '17 at 1:23
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    $\begingroup$ If necromancy and other forms of corpse abuse are common, one expects cremation to replace burial. No ongoing maintenance cost and no chance of grandma attacking in the night. $\endgroup$ – user535733 May 16 '17 at 2:04
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    $\begingroup$ And reading the original question, OP was asking for geological conditions, not the standard "magic". $\endgroup$ – jwenting May 16 '17 at 6:08

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