Seminole Burial Customs

The Seminole, the immigrants from the Creek towns who settled in Florida during the eighteenth century, were little influenced by the whites until very recent years. Living as they did in the midst of the great swamps of the southern part of the peninsula, with no roads penetrating the tangle of semitropical vegetation, and with even the location of their settlements unknown to the occupants of other parts of Florida, they were never visited, and seldom seen except when they chose to make journeys to the traders near the coast. Consequently the burial customs of the people, as witnessed 40 years ago, were probably little different from those practiced during the past generations. The account written at that time referred particularly to the death and burial of a child: ” The preparation for burial began as soon as death had taken place. The body was clad in a new shirt, a new handkerchief being tied about the neck and another around the head. A spot of red paint was placed on the right cheek and one of black upon the left. The body was laid face upwards. In the left hand, together with a bit of burnt wood, a small bow about twelve inches in length was placed, the hand lying naturally over the middle of the body. Across the bow, held by the right hand, was laid an arrow, slightly drawn. During these preparations, the women loudly lamented, with hair disheveled. At the same time some men had selected a, place for the burial and made the grave in this manner: Two palmetto logs of proper size were split. The four pieces were firmly placed on edge, in the shape of an oblong box, lengthwise east and west. In this box a floor was laid, and over this a blanket was spread. Two men, at next sunrise, carried the body from the. camp to the place of burial, the body being suspended at feet, thighs, back, and neck from a long pole [fig. 14]. The relatives followed. In the grave, which is called ‘To-hop-ki’ a word used by the Seminole for ‘stockade,’ or ‘fort,’ also, the body was then laid the feet to the east. A blanket was then carefully wrapped around the body. Over this palmetto leaves were placed and the grave was tightly closed by a covering of logs. Above the box a roof was then built. Sticks in the form of an X, were driven into the earth across the overlying logs, these were connected by a pole, and this structure was cowered thickly with palmetto leaves. The bearers of the body then made a large fire at each end of the ‘To-hop-ki.’ With this the ceremony at the grave ended and all returned to the camp. During that day and for three days thereafter the relatives remained at home and refrained from work. The fires at the grave were renewed at sunset by those who had made them, and after nightfall torches were waved in the air, that ‘the bad birds of the night’ might not get at the Indian lying in his grave. The renewal of the fires and waving of the torches were repeated three days. The fourth day the fires were allowed to die out. Throughout the camp ‘medicine’ had been sprinkled at sunset for three days. On the fourth day it was said that the Indian had gone. From that time the mourning ceased and the members of the family returned to their usual occupations. “The interpretation of the ceremonies just mentioned, as given me, is this: The Indian was laid in the grave to remain there, it was believed, only until the fourth day. The fires at head and feet, as well as the waving of the torches, were to guard him from the approach of `evil birds’ who would harm him. His feet were placed toward the east, that when he arose to go to the skies he might go straight to the sky path, which commenced at the place of the sun’s rising; that were he laid with the feet in any other direction he would not know when he rose what path to take and he would be lost in the darkness. He had with him his bow and arrow, that he might procure food on his way. The piece of burnt wood in his hand was to protect him from the `bad birds’ while he was on his skyward journey. These ‘evil birds’ are called Ta-lak-i-clak-o. The last rite paid to the Seminole dead is at the end of four moons. At that time the relatives go to the To-hop-ki and cut from around it the overgrowing grass. A widow lives with disheveled hair for the first twelve moons of her widowhood.” Another form of Seminole burial has been mentioned, but it could not have been followed to any great extent. “The Seminoles of Florida are said to have buried in hollow trees, the bodies being placed in an upright position, occasionally the dead being crammed into a hollow log lying on the ground.” The writer failed to give his authority for the statement.

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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