How Dead Are You?

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. –Benjamin Franklin

There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead means you’re still partly alive. –The Princess Bride

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Every culture since the dawn of time has been fascinated by the dead. The Egyptians entombed them in huge, inescapable pyramids. The Greeks burned them on elaborate funeral pyres. The Vikings burned them in longships, and then buried them. Some of the world’s greatest monuments are associated with funeral rites, and the world’s most renown teachers and philosophers are known for their theories regarding the afterlife.


And yet we are no wiser now than we were five thousand years ago at the dawn of civilization. People are born, they live, they die, and we wonder. Are they really dead? Does the soul go on? Or, more importantly, does it come back to haunt us?

Tales, myths, and legends about the return and fate of the dead have been around as long as we have. From the eerie realm of Hades to the mystical practices of voodoo we have wondered, speculated, guessed, and feared the answers. Even in modern times, the so-called enlightened age, our entertainment is filled with ghost hunters, skeletal apparitions, and corpses who claw their way out of the grave.

In a world so filled with specters and spooks it can be important to keep track of who is dead and who is not. One question people frequently scratch their heads over is this: what is the difference between being dead and undead?

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The answer is more simple than you might otherwise suppose. Does the not-alive creature you’re currently studying have a body? If the answer is “yes” then you are probably dealing with an undead specimen. If the answer is “no” then what you have is a spirit–or someone who is legitimately and soundly dead.

Vampires and Zombies, therefore, are examples of the undead. Someone dies, you bury them, and the next thing you know they’re walking around eating brains and drinking blood. Clearly this corpse you thought peacefully resting in the earth isn’t really dead–they’re merely mostly dead. Whether that partial alive-ness is caused by a reanimation spell, a weird world-destroying virus, demonic possession, or ancient malevolent magic is another question entirely. The good news is that, since they’re partly alive, they can be killed again–properly this time. The undead are vulnerable to things like fire and decapitation and you can rest easy knowing that this time they are completely and utterly dead.

Now suppose you’re sleeping peacefully one night and your great-aunt Mathilda appears, moaning and wringing her hands. You break out your favorite flame-thrower but when the smoke has cleared she’s still there. The reason fire didn’t work is because great-aunt Mathilda isn’t undead–she’s actually dead. If you dig up her coffin her bones will be exactly where you left them–only a little more decayed than you remember. What you are dealing with now is not a reanimated version of your great-aunt, but the relative herself, speaking to you from beyond the grave.


Getting rid of a ghost is significantly harder than getting rid of the undead. This is simply because they’re dead already. There’s no way to kill them harder. They’ve moved beyond the physical realm, so they are impervious to physical violence. The easiest way to get rid of a haunting is to find out what the ghost wants and they’ll go away on their own. Sometimes they want their murder avenged, or the best silver polished. Sometimes they want a different tombstone, or a grandchild. Sometimes they want prayers said for them, or candles lit. Occasionally they come to deliver a warning or message about the other side. Usually if you ask them what they want politely, and do it, they’ll go away.

If you don’t want to do as you’re asked, or if your ghost or specter is behaving irrational, your only other recourse is to find someone who is can see between worlds and ask for their help in shutting the ghost out. However, not only does this tend to be expensive, it can also be extremely dangerous. Spirits don’t like mortals probing at or messing around in their world, and once you get their attention you may never escape it again. It is best to wait to learn the mysteries of death until you, yourself, are dead.


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