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Inhumation

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Inhumation

     The commonest mode of burial among North American Indians has been that of interment in the ground, and this has taken place in a number of different ways; the following will, however, serve as good examples of the process.
     "The Mohawks of New York made a large round hole in which the body was placed upright or upon its haunches, after which it was covered with timber, to support the earth which they lay over, and thereby kept the body from being pressed. They then raised the earth in a round hill over it. They always dressed the corpse in all its finery, and put wampum and other things into the grave with it; and the relations suffered not grass nor any weed to grow upon the grave, and frequently visited it and made lamentation." [Footnote: Hist. Indian Tribes of the United States, 1853, part 3, p 183.] This account may be found in Schoolcraft.

     In Jones [Footnote: Antiq. of Southern Indians, 1873, pp 108-110] is the following interesting account from Lawson, of the burial customs of the Indians formerly inhabiting the Carolinas:
     "Among the Carolina tribes, the burial of the dead was accompanied with special ceremonies, the expense and formality attendant upon the funeral according with the rank of the deceased. The corpse was first placed in a cane bundle and deposited in an outhouse made for the purpose, where it was suffered to remain for a day and a night guarded and mourned over by the nearest relatives with disheveled hair. Those who are to officiate at the funeral go into the town, and from the backs of the first young men they meet strip such blankets and matchcoats as they deem suitable for their purpose. In these the dead body is wrapped and then covered with two or three mats made of rushes or cane. The coffin is made of woven reeds or hollow canes tied fast at both ends. When everything is prepared for the interment, the corpse is carried from the house in which it has been lying into the orchard of peach-trees and is there deposited in another bundle. Seated upon mats are there congregated the family and tribe of the deceased and invited guests. The medicine man, or conjurer, having enjoined silence, then pronounces a funeral oration, during which he recounts the exploits of the deceased, his valor, skill, love of country, property, and influence, alludes to the void caused by his death, and counsels those who remain to supply his place by following in his footsteps; pictures the happiness he will enjoy in the land of spirits to which he has gone, and concludes his address by an allusion to the prominent traditions of his tribe."
     Let us here pause to remind the reader that this custom has prevailed throughout the civilized world up to the present day, a custom, in the opinion of many, "more honored in the breach than the observance."
     "At last [says Mr. Lawson], the corpse is brought away from that hurdle to the grave by four young men, attended by the relations, the king, old men, and all the nation. When they come to the sepulchre, which is about six feet deep and eight feet long, having at each end (that is, at the head and foot) a light-wood or pitch-pine fork driven close down the sides of the grave firmly into the ground (these two forks are to contain a ridgepole, as you shall understand presently), before they lay the corpse into the grave, they cover the bottom two or three time over with the bark of trees; then they let down the corpse (with two belts that the Indians carry their burdens withal) very leisurely upon the said barks; then they lay over a pole of the same wood in the two forks, and having a great many pieces of pitch- pine logs about two foot and a half long, they stick them in the sides of the grave down each end and near the top, through of where (sic) the other ends lie in the ridge-pole, so that they are declining like the roof of a house. These being very thick placed, they cover them many times double with bark; then they throw the earth thereon that came out of the grave and beat it down very firm. By this means the dead body lies in a vault, nothing touching him. After a time the body is taken up, the bones cleaned, and deposited in an ossuary called the Quiogozon."
     Dr Fordyce Grinnell, physician to the Wichita Agency, Indian Territory, furnishes the following description of the burial ceremonies of the Wichita Indians, who call themselves. "Kitty-la- tats" or those of the tattooed eyelids.
     "When a Wichita dies the town-crier goes up and down through the village and announces the fact. Preparations are immediately made for the burial, and the body is taken without delay to the grave prepared for it reception. If the grave is some distance from the village the body is carried thither on the back of a pony, being first wrapped in blankets and then laid prone across the saddle, one walking on either side to support it. The grave is dug from 3 to 4 feet deep and of sufficient length for the extended body. First blankets and buffalo robes are laid in the bottom of the grave, then the body, being taken from the horse and unwrapped, is dressed in its best apparel and with ornaments is placed upon a couch of blankets and robes, with the head towards the west and the feet to the east; the valuables belonging to the deceased are placed with the body in the grave. With the man are deposited his bows and arrows or gun, and with the woman her cooking utensils and other implements of her toil. Over the body sticks are placed six or eight inches deep and grass over these, so that when the earth is filled in it need not come in contact with the body or its trappings. After the grave is filled with earth a pen of poles is built around it, or, as is frequently the case, stakes are driven so that they cross each other from either side about midway over the grave, thus forming a complete protection from the invasion of wild animals. After all this is done, the grass or other "debris" is carefully scraped from about the grave for several feet, so that the ground is left smooth and clean. It is seldom the case that the relatives accompany the remains to the grave, but they more often employ others to bury the body for them, usually women. Mourning is similar in this tribe as in others, and consists in cutting off the hair, fasting, &c. Horses are also killed at the grave."
     The Caddoes, "Ascena", or Timber Indians, as they call themselves, follow nearly the same mode of burial as the Wichitas, but one custom prevailing is worthy of mention.
     "If a Caddo is killed in battle, the body is never buried, but is left to be devoured by beasts or birds of prey and the condition of such individuals in the other world is considered to be far better than that of persons dying a natural death."
     In a work by Bruhier [Footnote: L'incertitude des Signes de la Mort, 1740, tom 1, p. 430] the following remarks, freely translated by the writer, may be found, which note a custom having great similarity to the exposure of bodies to wild beasts mentioned above.
     "The ancient Persians threw out the bodies of their dead on the roads, and if they were promptly devoured by wild beasts it was esteemed a great honor, a misfortune if not. Sometimes they interred, always wrapping the dead in a wax cloth to prevent odor."
     M. Pierre Muret, [Footnote: Rites of Funeral, Ancient and Modern, 1683, p 45] from whose book Bruhier probably obtained his information, gives at considerable length an account of this peculiar method of treating the dead among the Persians, as follows:
     "It is a matter of astonishment, considering the "Persians" have ever had the renown of being one of the most civilized Nations in the world, that notwithstanding they should have used such barbarous customs about the Dead as are set down in the Writings of some Historians, and the rather because at this day there are still to be seen among them those remains of Antiquity, which do fully satisfy us, that their Tombs have been very magnificent. And yet nevertheless, if we will give credit to "Procopius" and "Agathias", the "Persians" were never wont to bury their Dead Bodies, so far were they from bestowing any Funeral Honors upon them. But, as these Authors tell us, they exposed them stark naked in the open fields, which is the greatest shame our Laws do allot to the most infamous Criminals, by laying them open to the view of all upon the highways: Yea, in their opinion it was a great unhappiness, if either Birds or Beasts did not devour their Carcasses; and they commonly made an estimate of the Felicity of these poor Bodies, according as they were sooner or later made a prey of. Concerning these, they resolved that they must needs have been very bad indeed, since even the beasts themselves would not touch them; which caused an extreme sorrow to their Relations, they taking it for an ill boding to their Family, and an infallible presage of some great misfortune hanging over their heads, for they persuaded themselves, that the Souls which inhabited those Bodies being dragg'd into Hell, would not fail to come and trouble them, and that being always accompanied with the Devils, their Tormentors, they would certainly give them a great deal of disturbance.
     "And on the contrary, when these Corpses were presently devoured, their joy was very great, they enlarged themselves in praises of the Deceased; every one esteeming them undoubtedly happy, and came to congratulate their relations on that account: For as they believed assuredly, that they were entered into the "Elysian" Fields, so they were persuaded, that they would procure the same bliss for all those of their family.
     "They also took a great delight to see Skeletons and Bones scattered up and down in the fields, whereas we can scarcely endure to see those of Horses and Dogs used so. And these remains of Humane Bodies, (the sight whereof gives us so much, horror, that we presently bury them out of our sight, whenever we find them elsewhere than in Charnel houses or Church yards) were the occasion of their greatest joy because they concluded from thence the happiness of those that had been devoured wishing after then Death to meet with the like good luck."
     The same author states and Bruhier corroborates the assertion that the Parthians, Medes, Iberians, Caspians, and a few others had such a horror and aversion of the corruption and decomposition of the dead and of their being eaten by worms that they threw out the bodies into the open fields to be devoured by wild beasts, a part of their belief being that persons so devoured would not be entirely extinct, but enjoy at least a partial sort of life in their living sepulchres. It is quite probable that for these and other reasons the Bactrians and Hircanians trained dogs for this special purpose called "Canes sepulchrales" which received the greatest care and attention, for it was deemed proper that the souls of the deceased should have strong and lusty frames to dwell in.
     George Gibbs [Footnote: Schoolcraft's Hist. Indian Tribes of the United States Pt. 3, 1853, p. 140] gives the following account of burial among the Klamath and Trinity Indians of the Northwest coast.
     The graves which are in the immediate vicinity of their houses exhibit very considerable taste and a laudable care. The dead are inclosed in rude coffins formed by placing four boards around the body and covered with earth to some depth; a heavy plank often supported by upright head and foot stones is laid upon the top or stones are built up into a wall about a foot above the ground and the top flagged with others. The graves of the chiefs are surrounded by neat wooden palings, each pale ornamented with a feather from the tail of the bald eagle. Baskets are usually staked down by the side according to the wealth or popularity of the individual and sometimes other articles for ornament or use are suspended over them. The funeral ceremonies occupy three days during which the soul of the deceased is in danger from "O-mah- u" or the devil. To preserve it from this peril a fire is kept up at the grave and the friends of the deceased howl around it to scare away the demon. Should they not be successful in this the soul is carried down the river, subject, however, to redemption by "Peh-ho wan" on payment of a big knife. After the expiration of three days it is all well with them.
      The question may well be asked, is the big knife a "sop to Cerberus"?
     Capt. F. E. Grossman, [Footnote: Rep. Smithson. Inst., 1871, p. 414] USA, furnishes the following account of burial among the Pima of Arizona:
     "The Pima tie the bodies of their dead with ropes, passing the latter around the neck and under the knees and then drawing them tight until the body is doubled up and forced into a sitting position. They dig the grave from four to five feet deep and perfectly round (about two feet in diameter), then hollow out to one side of the bottom of this grave a sort of vault large enough to contain the body. Here the body is deposited, the grave is filled up level with the ground, and poles, trees, or pieces of timber placed upon the grave to protect the remains from the coyotes (a species of wolf). Burials usually take place at night, without much ceremony. The mourners chant during the burial, but signs of grief are rare. The bodies of their dead are buried, if possible, immediately after death has taken place, and the graves are generally prepared before the patients die. Sometimes sick persons (for whom the graves had already been dug) recovered; in such cases the graves are left open until the persons for whom they were intended die. Open graves of this kind can be seen in several of their burial-grounds. Places of burial are selected some distance from the village, and, if possible, in a grove of mesquite bushes. Immediately after the remains have been buried, the house and personal effects of the deceased are burned, and his horses and cattle killed, the meat being cooked as a repast for the mourners. The nearest relatives of the deceased, as a sign of their sorrow, remain in the village for weeks and sometimes months; the men cut off about six inches of their long hair, while the women cut their hair quite short"
     The Coyotero Apaches, according to Dr. W. J. Hoffman, [Footnote: U.S. Geol. Surv. of Terr. for 1876, p. 473] in disposing of their dead, seem to be actuated by the desire to spare themselves any needless trouble, and prepare the defunct and the grave in this manner.
     "The Coyotero, upon the death of a member of the tribe, partially wrap up the corpse and deposit it into the cavity left by the removal of a small rock or the stump of a tree. After the body has been crammed into the smallest possible space the rock or stump is again rolled into its former position, when a number of stones are placed around the base to keep out the coyotes. The nearest of kin usually mourn for the period of one month, during that time giving utterance at intervals to the most dismal lamentations, which are apparently sincere. During the day this obligation is frequently neglected or forgotten, but when the mourner is reminded of his duty he renews his howling with evident interest. This custom of mourning for the period of thirty days corresponds to that formerly observed by the Natchez."
     Somewhat similar to this rude mode of sepulture is that described in the life of Moses Van Campen, which relates to the Indians formerly inhabiting Pennsylvania:
     "Directly after the Indians proceeded to bury those who had fallen in battle, which they did by rolling an old log from its place and laying the body in the hollow thus made, and then heaping upon it a little earth"
     As a somewhat curious, if not exceptional, interment, the following account, relating to the Indians of New York is furnished, by Mr. Franklin B. Hough, who has extracted it from an unpublished journal of the agents of a French company kept in 1794:
     "Saw Indian graves on the plateau of Independence Rock. The Indians plant a stake on the right side of the head of the deceased and bury them in a bark canoe. Their children come every year to bring provisions to the place where their fathers are buried. One of the graves had fallen in and we observed in the soil some sticks for stretching skins, the remains of a canoe, &c., and the two straps for carrying it, and near the place where the head lay were the traces of a fire which they had kindled for the soul of the deceased to come and warm itself by and to partake of the food deposited near it.
     "These were probably the Massasauga Indians, then inhabiting the north shore of Lake Ontario, but who were rather intruders here, the country being claimed by the Oneidas."
     It is not to be denied that the use of canoes for coffins has occasionally been remarked, for the writer in 1875 removed from the graves at Santa Barbara an entire skeleton which was discovered in a redwood canoe, but it is thought that the individual may have been a noted fisherman, particularly as the implements of his vocation, nets, fish-spears, &c., were near him, and this burial was only an exemplification of the well-rooted belief common to all Indians, that the spirit in the next world makes use of the same articles as were employed in this one. It should be added that of the many hundreds of skeletons uncovered at Santa Barbara the one mentioned presented the only example of the kind.
     Among the Indians of the Mosquito coast, in Central America, canoe burial in the ground, according to Bancroft [Footnote: Native Races of Pacific States, 1874, vol. 1, p 744.], was common, and is thus
described:
     "The corpse is wrapped in cloth and placed in one-half of a pitpan which has been cut in two. Friends assemble for the funeral and drown their grief in "mushla", the women giving vent to their sorrow by dashing themselves on the ground until covered with blood, and inflicting other tortures, occasionally even committing suicide. As it is supposed that the evil spirit seeks to obtain possession of the body, musicians are called in to lull it to sleep while preparations are made for its removal. All at once four naked men, who have disguised themselves with paint so as not to be recognized and punished by "Wulasha", rush out from a neighboring hut, and, seizing a rope attached to the canoe, drag it into the woods, followed by the music and the crowd. Here the pitpan is lowered into the grave with bow, arrow, spear, paddle, and other implements to serve the departed in the land beyond, then the other half of the boat is placed over the body. A rude hut is constructed over the grave, serving as a receptacle for the choice food, drink, and other articles placed there from time to time by relatives."

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Introduction to the Study of Mortuary Customs Among the North American Indians

Native American Nations

 

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