Cahuilla Burial Customs

As soon as a Cahuilla dies, he is washed, dressed, and taken to the ceremonial house, kishumnawat. The members of his clan gather round the body and sing all night.

If the deceased was a man, the Creation story is sung, if it was a woman, a song about the Moon is sung, for the Moon was the teacher and best friend of the women. If death has occurred to either man or woman by accident, the Battle song is always sung. They sing for a while and then stop and cry and blow upwards three times. This is all done to send the spirit to a peaceful abiding place.

Up to the time of contact with the Mission Fathers, cremation was universally practiced. After that, they began to bury their dead. One old Indian in explaining this to me said, “We used to burn our dead, but the white people told us that was wrong. Now the white people do as we used to and burn their dead, but we bury ours as they taught us to.”

After they have sung all night over the body, it is put in a rude coffin and carried to the Indian graveyard. Cloth, food, and often bedding also are put in the coffin. The Indians claim it will be useful for the spirit, if it can not find a resting-place elsewhere right away.

If the dead person was a woman, every woman present picks up a handful of dirt, and drops it upon the coffin in passing. If the corpse was a man, the same thing is done by the men present. Mean while there is a low chanting and wailing going on constantly.

It is not always necessary that they sing over the body the first night after death occurs. For example, not long ago a man was killed in Los Angeles by an automobile running over him. It would have been expensive and useless to send the body from Los Angeles to Martinez. A friend sent part of the clothing, instead. They put this in a coffin and sang over it as they would have done over his body.

When one is very ill and not expected to live, he is removed to the kishumnawat. Here the people gather and sing the death song over him all night. If he dies in the night, the song changes instantly to more of a wail, and different words are sung.

I was told by a white woman of an instance where a small boy had his leg broken while playing. This was the second serious accident he had had in one week. Because of this, his people decided it was intended he should die. Accordingly, they took him to the kishumna wat and sang the death song over him. The poor child was suffering greatly, for they had not tried to relieve his pain he was also nearly frightened to death. During the night, the white woman who knew about the case, sent the Government doctor to set the boy s leg. The parents objected at first but finally consented. They continued, how ever, to sing the death song over him. Soon the boy began to improve, so he was removed to his home.

Destruction of property is still practiced. Within two or three days after the funeral, the house in which the deceased has lived is burned, with all of his possessions.

The belief in spirits is very strong. They believe if they burn the property of the dead one and his place of habitation, the spirit will not return. One other explanation has been offered. The constant sight of objects which have belonged to one who is no longer living or the associations attached to his home make the people sad. To avoid this, they burn everything up.

At present, on some of the reservations, many of the Indians have rude frame houses. They do not burn these houses after one death, but when there have been three deaths in one home it is burned.

Hooper, Lucile. The Cahuilla Indians. Berkeley, California: University Of California Press. 1920.

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