I’m back at it again and thinking about the kinda stuff dwarves get up to in their mountain fortresses. Usually, I like to think about the practical stuff like, what they eat or what they trade for. But it’s October, so I feel like the general populace is expecting a macabre flare. What do dwarves do with their dead?
In Tolkien’s world, dwarves that fell on battlefields above ground were burned in funerary pyres. In fact, this was so common that the phrase a “charred dwarf” was a euphemism for a casualty of war. Dwarves that died underground tended to be committed to stone burial chambers as being laid to rest in dirt was seen as distasteful. SImilarly, in Dungeons and Dragons’ Forgotten Realms setting, dwarves are interred in tombs overseen by clerics of Dumathoin. In the Warhammer Fantasy, family plots are very common.
Let’s take a little from all of these universes and think about the matter from a practical standpoint.
When you think of a dwarven city, you have to deal with certain constraints. The earth they’re working with has to be suitable for excavation and able to be reinforced to last the centuries that span dwarven lives. Once you begin to dig to significant depths, heat becomes a major issue. Complex cooling and ventilation systems have to be implemented to keep the deepest mines from becoming unbearably hot. So like most cities in our world space becomes a major concern.
Of course, the wealthy and politically connected dwarves will be able to be buried in lavish opulence. We see this in the historic above ground cemeteries of New Orleans. You must pay dearly for space in the most prominent mausoleums. Nicolas Cage’s plot famously had to be sold to help cover his mounting debts. As a result, most can’t expect to spend eternity in the grandest settings.
The majority of dwarven burial sites aren’t glorious architectural marvels worthy of kings. Quite the contrary, most of their grave complexes are actually repurposed. In our world, one of the largest gravesites ever constructed sits beneath the streets of Paris. The Parisian tunnels were originally carved to quarry limestone to build the palaces and cathedrals above ground. As the city grew and spots for the dead became scarce, they turned to the hundreds of miles of available subterranean space. The dwarves came to a similar solution. While legendary rulers or vaunted heroes secure mausoleums in the already crowded mountain fortresses, most find themselves interred in abandoned mines. Once all the gold, gems, or mithril are tapped, the extensive tunnels are often left abandoned. Without too much extra effort, dwarven masons are able to convert sprawling mines into cemeteries. While few dwarves will outright say it, these catacombs can be a rather ignoble place to spend eternity.
There are some exceptions. It can be a prestigious post guarding the tombs of the most celebrated and revered royalty. In fact, such assignments can be a vital link in dwarven patronage networks. It’s not uncommon that an illustrious warrior or adventurer wants cash in on a lifetime service and heroism. Once it’s clear they’re too old for the rigours of questing, the houses they serve may provide them with a well-paying post standing watch over venerated resting places. But there are only so many of these posts to go around.
Appropriately, the dwarves assigned to protect mine ossuaries are not the most reputable. It’s often seen as a punishment, embarrassment, or both to spend your prime fighting years standing watch there. They call them sepulchral dwarves.
Among the least concerning of threats to guard against are the cataphiles. Like in the Parisian example above, the catacombs attract daring urban explorers. Some are seeking a quick buck and hoping to grab some loose gems or valuable armor interred with a body. Others are young dwarves seeking thrills and adventure in these chthonic locales. The sepulchral dwarves are usually able to handle these minor trespassers without too much difficulty. In fact, they are often glad for such distractions to break up the tedium, and thankful to not be dealing with a more dire threat.
As we’ve discussed in previous posts, food is a precious resource in the underdark. The accumulated decomposing bodies prove alluring to underground scavengers. Juvenile purple worms in particular are prone to burrowing through and gorging on (relatively) fresh corpses. There’s little the sepulchral dwarves can do against megafauna like these, but they’re expected to defend the tomb at all costs. The pressure is immense because there’s not much further down the social scale these guardians can go. Many choose death over sacrificing what little remains of their honor. At least initially…
The real danger doesn’t begin until a sepulchral dwarf has spent several decades toiling away at this thankless task. As the majority of the interred wither and decay beyond being appealing to myconids, ghouls, and wurms, the job becomes a quiet tedium. The veteran warriors have little to do and begin to pray for mischievous cataphiles to break the monotony. The guards struggle to keep their minds sharp as boredom encompasses their every waking moment. When these dwarves near their breaking point, they draw the interest of foul forces: necromancers.
In the most remote and near-forgotten tombs, evil wizards have a ready made skeletal army waiting for them, and all that stands in their way is a handful of guardians at their wit’s end. In the best case, they’re simply bribed with enough gold to allow the sentry to start a new life above ground, as they’d be pariahs in their former homes for abandoning their post. But in many cases, the sepulchral dwarves are persuaded into the service of a necromancer. For warriors who’s chance at martial glory has long passed them, they may be offered a second chance. An undead army needs officers after all. To escape the shame and boredom of their lot, some sepulchral dwarves undergo the blasphemous ritual to become a wight. Preferable to being a mindless zombie drone, this allows them to retain some semblance of their memories and intelligence and a path to slake their desire for revenge.
Back in the bright, flourishing underground cities, those with darker sensibilities sing songs about sepulchral dwarves returning to seek the one who assigned them their post in the mine tombs. The dwarven wights don’t simply desire to kill their former superior. They want to inflict the ultimate indignity upon them. In these songs, the victim is dragged back to the necromancer to become a lowly undead grunt under the command of the sepulchral dwarf.
But since most dwarven cities are effectively fortresses, this opportunity is rare. It’s much more common that this vendetta smolders in the back of the mind of dwarven wights. As the memories of their lives grow dim and distant, they prowl the massive networks of tunnels desperate for a living creature to take their anger out upon. So if you find yourself unlucky enough to be in the deep dark places of the world be wary of the usually charming dwarven brogue you hear reverberating off the stone walls. The playful hymn they’re singing might just be them passing the time between their next attack.