Curious burial rites of certain swamp dwellers give us the myth and magic of Wax People.
The freshly dead are clothed in simple, rough-spun cotton and immersed face-up in the bog. It’s traditional to leave to the nose above water, though obviously this isn’t necessary. Holdovers from even older traditions make this interment a judgment of the soul—if the corpse stays below water long enough, then it has been deemed worthy of the afterlife. If it bobs immediately to the swamp surface, it has been rejected and must be burned before it inflicts harm on the village.
Within a few weeks of submergence, the body becomes coated in grave wax as the fats leach out and harden on the skin, solidifying in the cotton clothing. Facial features and body characteristics are perfectly preserved. The likeness of the departed can persist this way for hundreds of years.
Grave robbers are common here. Every community has its bad seeds. The swamp corpses are fantastic sources for hands of glory, which will lead adventurers by candlelight through mazes of treacherous foxfire to actual treasure.
After a few months in the water, the wax person may break the surface, and the combination of adipocere and ignis fatuus brings them to second life. The cold blue flames self-ignite when the wax oxidizes, and this second body—this outer shell—breaks free, stands up, shambles through the swamp.
It only lives for as long as the fire burns. The withered husk that it leaves behind in the bog dissolves away into silt. Women and children are almost always judged favorably and returned to their mourning families. Men, however, only come back if they’ve lived a life of such luxury that their corpulent flesh has a hard time staying below the water. Ever buoyant. Obesity and gluttony become signs of holiness. Hedonism is the key to the afterlife.
There is brisk trade in plastic shamanism—a grieving family waits the months for a sign of returning life, checking the burial spot night after night with jack o’lanterns. If they see no trails of escaping gas bubbling up from the black water, they pool together their meager possessions and hire a shaman to speed along the process. The shaman takes a shallow-bottom boat and a lamplight on a long pole out into the swamp, and probes the burial site in an attempt to ignite the wax corpse and raise it back to life.
The happy family enjoys several nights of visitation from the recently returned, laughing and dancing just out of reach of the flickering finger flames. “Come catch me, Grandpa!” the children sing-song, thinking it all a game. But the wax person blunders blindly, eyes boiling away. Every day the fire consumes it more and more, down to a dead, guttering stub. The wax mouth hangs open in a dripping, silent scream. The corpse only wants to grab hold of someone it loves and let them know. The flames burn. Death is pain. This second life is hell.
Josh Pearce has stories and poetry in Analog, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Cast of Wonders, Clarkesworld, IGMS, and Nature, and he frequently reviews films for Locus Magazine. Find more of his writing at fictionaljosh.com. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.