Choctaw Burial Customs

Thus the greater part of the southern country was claimed and occupied by tribes belonging to the Muskhogean group, who were first encountered by the Spanish explorers of the early sixteenth century, and who continued to occupy the region until removed during the first half of the nineteenth century. For three centuries they are known to have remained within the same limited area. On the west were the Choctaw, whose villages extended over a large part of the present State of Mississippi and eastward into Alabama. And to this tribe should undoubtedly be attributed the many burial mounds now encountered within the bounds of their ancient territory, but the remains as now found embedded in a mass of sand and earth forming the mound represent only one, the last, phase of the ceremonies which attended the death and burial of the Choctaw. These as witnessed and described by Bartram were quite distinct. “As soon as a person is dead, they erect a scaffold eighteen or twenty feet high, in a grove adjacent to the town, where they lay the corpse lightly covered with a mantle; here it is suffered to remain, visited and protected by the friends and relations, until the flesh becomes putrid, so as easily to part from the bones; then undertakers, who made it their business, carefully strip the flesh from the bones, wash and cleanse them, and when dry and purified by the air, having provided a curiously wrought chest or coffin, fabricated of bones and splints, they place all the bones therein; it is then deposited in the bone house, a building erected for that purpose in every town. And when this house is full, a general solemn funeral takes place; the nearest kindred or friends of the deceased, on a day appointed, repair to the bone house, take up the respective coffins, and follow one another in order of seniority, the nearest relations and connections attending their respective corpse, and the multitude following after them, all as one family, with united voice of alternate Allelujah and lamentation, slowly proceed to the place of general interment, where they place the coffins in order, forming a pyramid; and lastly, cover all over with earth, which raises a conical hill or mount. Then they return to town in order of solemn procession, concluding the day with a festival, which is called the feast of the dead.” The several writers who left records of the Choctaw ceremonies varied somewhat in their accounts of the treatment of the dead, but differed only in details, not in any main questions. And to quote from Capt. Romans: “As soon as the deceased is departed, a stage is erected (as in the annexed plate is represented) and the corpse is laid on it and covered with a bear skin; if he be a man of note, it is decorated, and the poles painted red with vermillion and bears oil; if a child, it is ‘put upon stakes set across; at this stage the relations come and weep, asking many questions of the corpse, such as, why he left them? did not his wife serve him well? was he not contented with his children? had he not corn enough? did not his land produce sufficient of everything? was he afraid of his enemies? &c. and this accompanied by loud howlings; the women will be there constantly and sometimes with the corrupted air and heat of the sun faint so as to oblige the by standers to carry them home; the men also come and mourn in the same manner, but in the night or at other Imseasinable times, when they are least likely to be discovered. The stage is fenced round with poles, it remains thus a certain time but not a fixed space, this is sometimes extended to three or four months, but seldom more than half that time. A certain set of venerable old Gentlemen who wear very long nails as a distinguishing badge on the thumb, fore and middle finger of each hand, constantly travel through the nation (when I was there I was told there were but five of this respectable order) that one of them may acquaint those concerned, of the expiration of this period, which is according to their own fancy; the day being come, the friends and relations assemble near the stage, a fire is made, and the respectable operator, after the body is taken down, with his nails tears the remaining flesh off the bones, and throws it with the intrails into the fire, where it is consumed; then he scrapes the bones and burns the scrapings likewise; the head being painted red with vermillion is with the rest of the bones put into a neatly made chest (which for a Chief is also made red) and deposited in the loft of a but built for that purpose, and called bone house; each town has one of these; after remaining here one year or thereabouts, if he be a man of any note, they take the chest down, and in an assembly of relations and friends they weep once more over him, refresh the colour of the head. paint the box red, and then deposit him to lasting oblivion.” Fortunately another description gives more details of the form of the so-called ” bone houses ” and the manner in which they were entered. According to Adair, the body was placed “on a high scaffold stockaded round, at the distance of twelve yards from his house opposite to the door.” At the beginning of the fourth moon after burial a feast was prepared, the bone picker removed all adhering flesh from the bones, which were then placed in a small chest and carried to the ” bone-house, which stands in a solitary place, apart from the town. Those bone-houses are scaffolds raised on durable pitchpine forked posts, in the form of a house covered a-top, but open at both ends. I saw three of them in one of their towns, pretty near each other, the place seemed to be unfrequented; each house contained the bones of one tribe, separately. I observed a ladder fixed in the ground, opposite to the middle of the broad side of each of those dormitories of the dead. On the top was the carved image of a dove, with its wings stretched out, and its head inclining downward.” The time for holding the great ceremony for the dead is mentioned in another account, written, however, during the same generation as the preceding. This was prepared by a French officer, the others having been the observations of Englishmen. ” When a Choctaw dies, his corpse is exposed upon a bier, made on purpose, of cypress bark, and placed on four posts fifteen feet high. When the wormes have consumed all the flesh, the whole family assembles; some one dismembers the skeleton, and plucks off all muscles, nerves and tendons that still remain, they bury them and deposit the bones in a chest, after colouring the head with vermillion. The relations weep during this ceremony, which is followed by a feast, with which those friends are treated who come to pay their compliments of condolence; after that, the remains of their late relation are brought to the common burying ground, and put in the place where his ancestor’s bones were deposited. In the first days of November they celebrate a great feast, which they call the feast of the dead, or of the souls; all the families then go to the burying-ground, and with tears in their eyes visit the chests which contain the relics of relations, and when they return, they give a great treat, which finishes the feast.”

One narrative remains to be quoted, a manuscript treating of Louisiana soon after the coming of the French, and although the name of the author is not known and it does not bear a (late, it was without doubt prepared by some French officer about the year 1730. Referring to the burial customs of the Choctaw, he wrote: “As soon as he is dead his relatives erect’ a kind of cabin, the shape of a coffin, directly opposite his door six feet from the ground on six stakes. surrounded by a mud wall, and covered with bark in which they enclose this body all dressed, and which they cover with a blanket. They place food and drink beside him, give a change of shoes, his gun, powder, and balls. The body rests in this five or six months until they think that it is rotted, which makes a terrible stench in the house. After some time all the relatives assemble ceremoniously and the femme de valleur of the village who has for her function to strip off the flesh from the bones of the dead, comes to take off the flesh from this body, cleans the bones well, and places them in a very clean cane hamper, which they enclose in linen or cloth. They throw the flesh into a field, and this same flesh stripper, without washing her hands, comes to serve food to the assembly. This woman is very much honored in the village. After the repast they go singing and howling to carry the bones into the charnel-house of the canton which is a cabin with only one covering in which these hampers are placed in a row on poles. The same ceremony is performed over chiefs except that instead of putting the bones in hampers they are placed in chests, in the charnel-house of the chiefs.” (Relation de La Louisianne.) According to this unknown writer it was the belief of the Choctaw that in after life all performed the same acts and had the same requirements as in this; therefore the dead were provided with food, weapons, articles of clothing, and other necessaries. Summarizing the several accounts presented on the preceding pages, it is possible to form a very clear conception of the burial customs of the Choctaw, which evidently varied somewhat in different parts of their country and at different times. Then again, the observers may not have been overly careful in recording details, but in the main all agree. Soon after death a scaffold was erected near the habitation of the deceased or in a near-by grove. Resting upon the scaffold was ” a kind of cabin, the shape of a coffin,” which undoubtedly varied greatly in form, and in early days these appear to have been made of wattlework coated with mud and covered over with bark. The body would be placed within this box-like inclosure after first being wrapped in bearskins, a blanket, or some other material of a suitable nature. Food was deposited with the body, and likewise many objects esteemed by the living. With children a lighter frame would serve crossed poles, as mentioned by Romans and likewise indicated in his drawing. Thus the body would remain several months and until the flesh became greatly decayed. Then certain persons, usually men, although women at times held the office, would remove all particles of flesh from the bones, using only their fingers in performing this work. The flesh so removed, and all particles scraped from the bones, would be burned, buried in the ground, or merely scattered. Next the bones would be washed and dried; some were then painted with vermilion mixed with bear’s oil; then all would be placed in baskets or chests and carried and deposited in the “bone house.” Every town had one such structure, which evidently stood at the outskirts of the village. Adair mentioned having seen “three of them in one of their towns, pretty near each other, each house contained the bones of one tribe “-i, e., clan. And this proves the recognition of clan distinction or rights, even after death. These “bone houses” seem to have resembled the houses of the living, being roofed but open at both ends. They were raised above the ground on stout posts and were reached by ladders. Some were surmounted by carved figures, one being that of ” a dove, with its wings stretched out, and its head inclined downward.” In some instances in olden times the remains of the chief men appear to have been. placed in a separate house set apart for that particular purpose. When the remains of many had ‘thus accumulated in the “bone houses ” the friends and relatives of the dead would gather and ” a general solemn funeral” would take place. On the day appointed the chests and baskets containing the bones would be removed from the ” bone houses ” and the friends and relatives would carry them in procession, ” with united voice of alternate Allelujah and lamentation,” to a chosen spot, where they were placed one upon another in the form of a pyramid, and when thus arranged all would be covered by a mass of earth, so making a conical mound, many of which now stand scattered over the region once occupied by this numerous tribe. But now the chests and baskets in which the bones were deposited have disappeared, together with all else of a perishable nature, and the bones themselves are fast crumbling to dust. The strange Choctaw custom gradually passed, and just a century ago, in January, 1820, it was said: ” Their ancient mode, of exposing the dead upon scaffolds, and afterwards separating the flesh from the bones, is falling into disuse, though still practiced, by the six towns of the Choctaws on the Pascagoula.” This refers -to the Oklahannali, or ” Sixtowns,” the name of the most important subdivision of the tribe, who occupied the region mentioned. Undoubtedly many mounds now standing in parts of Mississippi and Alabama owe their origin to the burial custom of the Choctaw, but, unfortunately, few have been examined with sufficient care to reveal their true form. One, however, was of the greatest interest, and the discovery of glass beads and sheet metal in contact with many of the burials proved the mound to have been erected after the coming of Europeans to the lower Mississippi Valley. This mound stood on the bank of the Mississippi, at Oak Bend Landing, in Warren County, Mississippi. It had been greatly modified and a house had been built upon it, so it had been reduced to 3 feet in height, .with diameters of 50 and 60 feet. When examined, 28 burials were encountered, ” mostly belonging to the bunched variety, but a few burials of adults extended on the back, and the skeletons of several children also were present in the mound. Some of the bunched burials were extensive, one having no fewer than thirty skulls (many in fragments) and a great quantity of other bones. The skulls of the bunched burials, as a rule, were heaped together at one side of the burial. Forty-six vessels of earthenware, mostly in small fragments, were recovered from this mound.” The great masses or deposits of human remains encountered in this mound is at once suggestive of the final disposition of the Choctaw dead, after the bodies had been removed from their earlier resting places, the flesh stripped from the bones, and the latter inclosed in baskets, finally to be arranged in heaps and covered with earth, thus forming a mound, to be added to from time to time. It is highly probable that in the older mounds all traces of the remains have disappeared, leaving no evidence of the original nature or form of the structure. But other mounds within this region, revealing many human remains in such positions as to prove the bodies to have been buried without the removal of the flesh, may also be of Choctaw origin, but erected under far different conditions. It is interesting to learn causes which led to the erection of several of these great tombs. Two, covering the dead of two tribes, stood about 2 miles south of West Point, Clay County, Mississippi. ” The Choctaws and Chickasaws had occasional conflicts, particularly after the whites appeared in the country. The former were allies of the French. The latter were under English control, and the rivalry of these kept the two kindred tribes on bad terms. They had a great battle about two miles south of West Point.

There may yet be seen two mounds, about one hundred yards apart. After the f fight they came to terms, and erected these mounds over their dead, and to the neighboring stream they gave the name Oka-tribe ha, or Fighting Water.” In the southwestern part of Alabama, the heart of the old Choctaw country, are numerous mounds, many of which when examined revealed more clearly than did those already mentioned the peculiarities of the Choctaw burial customs. Among these were two which stood not far from the left bank of the Tombigbee, near Jackson, Clarke County, Alabama. The more northerly of these was about 43 feet in diameter and 2 feet in height. ” Human remains were found in eleven places, consisting of lone skulls, small bunches, and fragments of bone, all in the last stage of decay.” A number of small stone implements were associated with some of the burials, and a single object of copper was found near where a skeleton may have rested, all traces of which had disappeared.

Choctaw at Bayou Lacomb

A mound only a short distance northward from the preceding, examined and described at the same time proved even more interesting. It was somewhat larger, being 48 feet in diameter and 5 feet in height. In it “human remains were met with in forty-five places, the deepest being 3½ feet from the surface. All bones were in the last stage of decay and crumbling to bits.” Of the burials, 23 were described as “isolated skulls,” others were skulls with various bones, or bones without the skulls. Objects of stone and copper and vessels of earthenware were encountered during the exploration of the burial place. It is quite evident the smaller, more fragile bones had disappeared through decay. A small group of Choctaw lived, until a few years ago, near Bayou Lacomb, St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. They were few in number, and the oldest person among them was probably little more than 50 years of age, and unfortunately they were unable to describe the old tribal burial customs. But although they knew little of the manner in which the bodies of their ancestors were treated, they were able to recall the manner in which the living mourned for the dead. According to the best informed, the period of mourning varied as did the age of the deceased. An older person, as the mother or father, was thus honored for six months or even a year, but for a child or young person the period did not exceed three months. During this time the women cut their hair and often gathered near the grave and ” cried.” When it was desired to cease mourning, the person stuck into the ground, so as to form a triangle, three pieces of wood, several feet in height. The three sticks were drawn together at the top and tied with a piece of bright colored cloth or some other material. These sticks, so tied and decorated, stood near the entrance of the habitation and indicated that the occupants desired to cease mourning. The three days following the mourners cried or wailed three times each day-at sunrise, at noon, and at sunset. And while thus expressing their grief they would be wrapped in blankets which covered their heads, and they sat or knelt upon the ground. During these three days their friends gathered and soon began dancing and feasting. At the expiration of the three days all ceased weeping and joined in the festivities, which continued another day. It is quite interesting to compare certain details of this brief description with the graphic drawing made by Capt. Romans, in which the manner of mourning as followed by the women is so clearly shown, sitting near the grave, wrapped in blankets which covered their heads. According to the beliefs of the same Choctaw, ” persons dying by violent deaths involving loss of blood, even a few drops, do not pass to the home of Aba (heaven), regardless of the character of their earthly lives, or their rank in the tribe. At night, spirits are wont to travel along the trails and roads used by living men, and thus avoid meeting the bad spirit, Nanapolo, whose wanderings are confined to the dark and unfrequented paths of the, forest. The spirits of men like the country traversed and occupied by living men, and that is why Shilup the ghost, is often seen moving among the trees or following persons after sunset. The spirits of all persons not meeting violent deaths, with the exception of those only who murder or attempt to murder their fellow Choctaw, go to the home of Aba. There it is always spring, with sunshine and flowers; there are birds and fruit and game in abundance. There the Choctaw ever sing and dance, and trouble is not known. All who enter this paradise become equally virtuous without regard to their state while on earth.

The unhappy spirits who fail to reach the home of Aba remain on earth in the vicinity of the places where they have died. But Nanapolo, the bad spirit, is never able to gain possession of the spirit of a Choctaw.”

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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