Let's be clear where I'm coming from, here: I've been playing World of Warcraft almost continuously for 15 years. (I lapsed for a big chunk of the Wrath of the Lich King era for IRL reasons.) While I understand the appeal of WoW Classic, I am very much a proponent of modern WoW; the game has evolved over time to be more accessible for me to play just a couple of hours a week, as real life now dictates. But I tend to play solo or just with one or two friends on a sporadic basis, which means I'm looking for something very different than the hardcore raiding or PvP crowd.
The Shadowlands were originally intended to be a fully playable zone in World of Warcraft, designed for high-level play. The idea was that as deceased characters made their way back to their corpses, they'd see high-level players battling creeps in the area, which would inspire lower level players to increase their character level so they could experience the zone for themselves.
Beings of death are ancient and powerful, and it is dangerous to meddle in their realm. When Odyn peered into the Shadowlands, he saw some of its inhabitants: souls in torment, the husks of the dead, ghostly wraiths with no face, and others with no form, all made of death itself. This was enough to frighten even him. Several races in the Shadowlands, such as the kyrian of Bastion, are souls of deceased mortals who have been transformed to serve a new purpose. If one of these former mortals is killed in the Shadowlands, they die permanently. Other creatures—such as dredgers and stewards—are endemic to the Shadowlands and are naturally born from the magic of death to serve the different realms and help facilitate the process of the afterlife. If one such creature of death is killed, their energy is recycled back into the Shadowlands, and eventually another member of the same race will manifest to take the place of the one that was killed.
Spirit healers decide when it's time for a mortal soul to pass into the Shadowlands. When a mortal dies and their soul crosses the veil between life and death, it is shepherded by the kyrian to Oribos so that they can be judged by the impassive Arbiter. All of the soul's contents—deeds, misdeeds, thoughts, accomplishments, and failures—are instantly laid bare before the Arbiter, who then judges in a mere instant and sends the soul off to one of the infinite realms of the Shadowlands, each of which is ruled over by a powerful Covenant. The Covenants are ancient and powerful orders who have existed since the Shadowlands were shaped long ago, and who bear sacred duties to help maintain the afterlife's ecosystem. Not every soul is filtered into the main four Covenants. Each soul brings with it a vital force known as anima, the product of all of the soul's experiences and actions in life. Anima is the lifeblood of the Shadowlands, making trees grow and rivers flow and is the source that's drawn upon to conduct the magic of death. Great souls—both good and evil—have a lot of anima, while those who have lived humbler lives have less. Four of the realms—Ardenweald, Bastion, Maldraxxus, and Revendreth—are especially vital to the functioning of the Shadowlands. However, there could be infinite afterlives, some small and tailored to a single person while others are vast and full of either splendor or torment. Between each realm is a cloudy space which was once rich with streams of anima connecting the different domains, but the current anima drought has caused the realms to become cut off from one another, breeding fear and mistrust among the inhabitants.
But it gets even more interesting when you look at how it will work for alts (second or later characters made by existing players). New characters made by existing players will have the option of leveling up the old way in all the same old zones from the start. But they will also be able to go through the new-player starting experience if that's what players prefer.
The Shadowlands are accessible upon death, where the player-character can roam, and can only be seen by other spirits. The Spirit of Tony Two-Tusk describes the Shadowlands as all grey and dark, swirling clouds. While Uuna was in the Shadowlands, she described it as dark and she was unable to see anything, though she could hear people interacting with her in the physical world. From within the Shadowlands, she could see the light of the naaru A'dal who was in the physical world, but it was so bright that it scared her. The moonlight at Lake Falathim allowed her to see a friend in the physical world.
The origins of the Shadowlands remain uncertain, but they have existed ever since mortal life first arose in the physical universe. They span all worlds, including Azeroth, on which Icecrown serves as an anchor to the Shadowlands. There are those who believe mortal souls are drawn into this dark place when they die, remaining there forever. Others hope their souls will go on to a brighter place rather than languish for eternity within the cold confines of the Shadowlands.