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Living Sepulchers

  Native American Nations | Burial Customs                    


Living Sepulchers

     This is a term quaintly used by the learned M Pierre Muret to express the devouring of the dead by birds and animals or the surviving friends and relatives. Exposure of the dead to animals and birds has already been mentioned, but in the absence of any positive proof it is not believed that the North American Indians followed the custom, although cannibalism may have prevailed to a limited extent. It is true that a few accounts are given by authors, but these are considered to be so apochryphal in character that for the present it is deemed prudential to omit them. That such a means of disposing of the dead was not in practice is somewhat remarkable when we take into consideration how many analogies have been found in comparing old and new world funeral observances, and the statements made by Bruhier, Lafitau, Muret, and others, who give a number of examples of this peculiar mode of burial.
     For instance, the Tartars sometimes ate their dead, and the Massageties, Derbices, and Effedens did the same, having previously strangled the aged and mixed their flesh with mutton. Horace and Tertulian both affirm that the Irish and ancient Britons devoured the dead, and Lafitau remarks that certain Indians of South America did the same, esteeming this mode of disposal more honorable and much to be preferred than to rot and be eaten by worms. To the credit of our savages, this barbarous and revolting practice is not believed to have been practiced by them.

Mourning, Feasts, Food, Dances, Songs, Games, Posts, Fires and Superstitions in Connection with Burial

     The above subjects are coincidental with burial, and some of them, particularly mourning, have been more or less treated of in this paper, yet it may be of advantage to here give a few of the collected examples, under separate heads.


     One of the most carefully described scenes of mourning at the death of a chief of the Crows is related in the life of Beckwourth, [Footnote: Autobiography of James Beckwourth, 1856, p. 260.] who for many years lived among this people, finally attaining great distinction as a warrior.
     "I dispatched a herald to the village to inform them of the head chief's death, and then, burying him according to his directions, we slowly proceeded homewards. My very soul sickened at the contemplation of the scenes that would be enacted at my arrival. When we drew in sight of the village, we found every lodge laid prostrate. We entered amid shrieks, cries, and yells. Blood was streaming from every conceivable part of the bodies of all who were old enough to comprehend their loss. Hundreds of fingers were dismembered; hair torn from the head lay in profusion about the paths, wails and moans in every direction assailed the ear, where unrestrained joy had a few hours before prevailed. This fearful mourning lasted until evening of the next day....
     "A herald having been dispatched to our other villages to acquaint them with the death of our head chief and request them to assemble at the Rose Bud in order to meet our village and devote themselves to a general time of mourning there met in conformity with this summons over ten thousand Crows at the place indicated. Such a scene of disorderly vociferous mourning no imagination can conceive nor any pen portray. Long Hair cut off a large roll of his hair, a thing he was never known to do before. The cutting and hacking of human flesh exceeded all my previous experience; fingers were dismembered as readily as twigs, and blood was poured out like water. Many of the warriors would cut two gashes nearly the entire length of their arm, then separating the skin from the flesh at one end, would grasp it in their other hand and rip it asunder to the shoulder. Others would carve various devices upon their breasts and shoulders and raise the skin in the same manner to make the scars show to advantage after the wound was healed. Some of their mutilations were ghastly and my heart sickened to look at them, but they would not appear to receive any pain from them."
     From I. L. Mahan, United States Indian Agent for the Chippewa of Lake
     Superior, Red Cliff, Wisconsin, the following detailed account of mourning has been received.
     There is probably no people that exhibit more sorrow and grief for their dead than they. The young widow mourns the loss of her husband; by day as by night she is heard silently sobbing; she is a constant visitor to the place of rest; with the greatest reluctance will she follow the raised camp. The friends and relatives of the young mourner will incessantly devise methods to distract her mind from the thought of her lost husband. She refuses nourishment but as nature is exhausted she is prevailed upon to partake of food; the supply is scant, but on every occasion the best and largest proportion is deposited upon the grave of her husband. In the mean time the female relatives of the deceased have according to custom submitted to her charge a parcel made up of different cloths ornamented with bead-work and eagles' feathers which she is charged to keep by her side--the place made vacant by the demise of her husband--a reminder of her widowhood. She is therefore for a term of twelve moons not permitted to wear any finery, neither is she permitted to slicken up and comb her head; this to avoid attracting attention. Once in a while a female relative of deceased, commiserating with her grief and sorrow, will visit her and voluntarily proceed to comb out the long-neglected and matted hair. With a jealous eye a vigilant watch is kept over her conduct during the term of her widowhood, yet she is allowed the privilege to marry, any time during her widowhood, an unmarried brother or cousin, or a person of the same "Dodem" [sic] (family mark) of her husband.
     "At the expiration of her term, the vows having been faithfully performed and kept, the female relatives of deceased assemble and, with greetings commensurate to the occasion, proceed to wash her face, comb her hair, and attire her person with new apparel, and otherwise demonstrating the release from her vow and restraint. Still she has not her entire freedom. If she will still refuse to marry a relative of the deceased and will marry another, she then has to purchase her freedom by giving a certain amount of goods and whatever else she might have manufactured during her widowhood in anticipation of the future now at hand. Frequently, though, during widowhood the vows are disregarded and an inclination to flirt and play courtship or form an alliance of marriage outside of the relatives of the deceased is being indulged, and when discovered the widow is set upon by the female relatives, her slick braided hair is shorn close up to the back of her neck, all her apparel and trinkets are torn from her person, and a quarrel frequently results fatally to some member of one or the other side."
     The substitution of a reminder for the dead husband, made from rags, furs, and other articles, is not confined alone to the Chippewa, other tribes having the same custom. In some instances the widows are obliged to carry around with them, for a variable period, a bundle containing the bones of the deceased consort.
     Benson [Footnote: Life among the Choctaws, 1860, p. 294.] gives the following account of their funeral ceremonies, embracing the disposition of the body, mourning feast and dance:
     "Their funeral is styled by them 'the last cry.'
     "When the husband dies the friends assemble, prepare the grave, and place the corpse in it, but do not fill it up. The gun, bow and arrows, hatchet and knife are deposited in the grave. Poles are planted at the head and the foot, upon which flags are placed; the grave is then enclosed by pickets driven in the ground. The funeral ceremonies now begin, the widow being the chief mourner. At night and morning she will go to the grave and pour forth the most piteous cries and wailings. It is not important that any other member of the family should take any very active part in the 'cry,' though they do participate to some extent.
     "The widow wholly neglects her toilet, while she daily goes to the grave during one entire _moon_ from the date when the death occurred. On the evening of the last day of the moon the friends all assemble at the cabin of the disconsolate widow, bringing provisions for a sumptuous feast, which consists of corn and jerked beef boiled together in a kettle. While the supper is preparing, the bereaved wife goes to the grave, and pours out, with unusual vehemence, her bitter wailings and lamentations. When the food is thoroughly cooked the kettle is taken from the fire and placed in the center of the cabin, and the friends gather around it, passing the buffalo-horn spoon from hand to hand and from mouth to mouth till all have been bountifully supplied. While supper is being served, two of the oldest men of the company quietly withdraw and go to the grave and fill it up, taking down the flags. All then join in a dance, which not unfrequently is continued till morning; the widow does not fail to unite in the dance, and to contribute her part to the festivities of the occasion. This is the '_last cry,_' the days of mourning are ended, and the widow is now ready to form another matrimonial alliance. The ceremonies are precisely the same when a man has lost his wife, and they are only slightly varied when any other member of the family has died. (Slaves were buried without ceremonies.)"

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

Native American Nations


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