Huron Ceremony, 1636

In contemplating the origin of the preceding burial it is of interest to read the description of a similar burial, as witnessed and recorded by the Jesuit Pere Le Jeune, in the year 1636. But the father had much to say about the manners and customs of the people among whom he labored-the Huron-whose villages were in the vicinity of Lake Simcoe. He told of the manner in which the family and friends gathered about the sick person while making various necessary plans and preparations in anticipation of the end, and continued: “As soon as the sick man has drawn his last breath, they place him in the position in which he is to be in the grave; they do not stretch him at length as we do, but place him in a crouching posture, almost the same that a child has in its mother’s womb. Thus far, they restrain their tears. After having performed these duties the whole Cabin begins to respond with cries, groans, and wails. As soon as they cease, the Captain goes promptly through the Cabins, making known that such and such a one is dead. On the arrival of friends, they begin anew to weep and complain. Word of the death is also sent to the friends who live in the other Villages; and, as each family has some one who takes care of its dead, these latter come as soon as possible to take charge of everything, and determine the clay of the funeral. Usually they inter the Dead on the third day; as soon as it is light, the Captain gives orders that throughout the whole Village a feast be made for the dead.” This being accomplished, ” the Captain publishes throughout the Village that the body is about to be borne to the Cemetery. The whole Village assembles in the Cabin; and weeping is renewed; and those who have charge of the ceremonies get ready a litter on which the corpse is placed on a mat and enveloped in a Beaver robe, and then four lift and carry it away; the whole Village follows in silence to the. Cemetery. A Tomb is there, made of bark and supported on four stakes, eight to ten feet high. However, before the. corpse is put into it, and before they arrange the bark, the Captain makes known the presents that have been given by the friends. In this Country, as well as elsewhere, the most agreeable consolations for the loss of friends are always accompanied by presents, such as kettles, axes, Beaver robes, and Porcelain collars.” All these gifts were not deposited with the dead. Some were distributed among the relations of the deceased and others were given to those persons who assisted with the ceremonies. Others were offered as prizes in games played by the younger men. The graves are not permanent; as their Villages are stationary only during a few years, while the supplies of the forest last, the bodies only remain in the Cemeteries until the feast of the Dead, which usually takes place every twelve years.” During the years between the death and the time of the final disposition of the remains the departed were often honored in many ways by the members of the family or by the entire village. And then came the great ceremony: “The feast of the Dead is the most renowned ceremony among the Huron; they give it the name of feast because , when the bodies are taken from their Cemeteries, each Captain makes a feast for the souls in his Village,” and the feast was conducted with much form, ” now usually there is only a single feast in each Nation; all the bodies are put into a common pit. I say, usually, for this year, which has happened to be the feast of the Dead, the kettle has been divided; and five Villages of the part where we are have acted by themselves, and have put their dead into a private pit. Twelve years or thereabouts leaving elapsed, the Old Men and Notables of the Country assemble, to deliberate in a definite way on the time at which the feast shall be held to the satisfaction of the whole Country and of the foreign Nations that may be invited to it. The decision having been made, as all the bodies are to be transported to the Village where is the common grave, each family sees to its dead, but with a care and affection that cannot be described if they have dead relatives in any part of the Country, they spare no trouble to go for them; they take them from the Cemeteries, bear them on their shoulders, and cover them with the finest robes they have. In each Village they choose a fair day, and proceed to the Cemetery, where those called Aiheonde, who take care of the graves, draw the bodies from the tombs in the presence of the relatives, who renew their tears and feel afresh the grief they had the day of the funeral, after having opened the graves, they display before you all these Corpses, on the spot, and they leave them thus exposed long enough for the spectators to learn at their leisure, and once for all, what they will be some day. The flesh of some is quite gone, and there is only parchment on their bones; in other cases, the bodies look as if they had been dried and smoked, and show scarcely any signs of putrefaction; and in still other cases they are still swarming with worms. When the friends have gazed upon the bodies to their satisfaction, they cover them with handsome Beaver robes quite new: finally, after some time they strip them of their flesh, taking off skin and flesh which they throw into the fire along with the robes and mats in which the bodies were wrapped. As regards the bodies of those recently dead, they leave these in the state in which they are, and content themselves by simply covering them with new robes. The bones having been well cleaned, they put them partly into bags, partly into fur robes, loaded them on their shoulders, and covered these packages with another beautiful hanging robe. As for the whole bodies, they put them on a species of litter, and carried them with all the others, each into his Cabin, where each family made a feast to its dead.” The bones of the dead were called by the Huron Atisken, “the souls.” For several days between the removal of the bodies from the tombs and the starting for the scene of the last rites, these many bundles of bones were either hung from the walls of the dwellings or lay upon the floor, and in one ” Cabin there were fully a hundred souls hung to and fixed upon the poles, some of which smelled a little stronger than musk.” At last the time arrived when all were gathered about the great excavation in which the remains were to be deposited “Let me describe the arrangement of this place. It was about the size of the place Royale at Paris.

There was in the middle of it a great pit, about ten feet deep and five brasses wide. All around it was a scaffold, a sort of staging very well made, nine to ten brasses in width, and from nine to ten feet high; above this staging there were a number of poles laid across, and well arranged, with cross-poles to which these packages of souls were hung and bound. The whole bodies, as they were to be put in the bottom of the pit, had been the preceding day placed under the scaffold, stretched upon bark or mats fastened to stakes about the height of a man, on the borders of the pit. The whole Company arrived with their corpses about an hour after Midday, and divided themselves into different cantons, according to their families and Villages, and laid on the ground their parcels of souls, almost as they do earthen pots at the Village Fairs. They unfolded also their parcels of robes, and all the presents they had brought, and hung them upon poles, which were from 5 to 600 toises in extent; so there were as many as twelve hundred presents which remained thus on exhibition two full hours, to give Strangers time to see the wealth and magnificence of the Country.” Later in the day the pit was lined with new beaver robes, each of which was made of ten skins. The bottom and sides were thus covered, and the robes lay a foot or more over the edge. Forty-eight robes were required to form the lining, and others of a like nature were wrapped about the remains. The entire bodies were first placed in the bottom of the pit, and the bundles of bones were deposited, above. “On all sides you could have seen them letting down half decayed bodies; and on all sides was heard a horrible din of confused voices of persons, who spoke and did not listen; ten or twelve were in the pit and were arranging the bodies all around it, one after another. They put in the very middle of the pit three large kettles, which could only be of use for souls; one had a hole through it, another had no handle, and the third was of scarcely more value.” The entire bodies were placed in the pit the first day, and the bundles of loose bones were deposited on the morning of the second, after which the beaver robes were folded over the remains which reached nearly to the mouth of the pit. And then all was covered “with sand, poles, and wooden stakes, which they threw in without order,” after which “some women brought to it some dishes of corn; and that day, and the following days, several Cabins of the Village provided nets quite full of it, which were thrown upon the pit.” Much detail not quoted at this time is to be found in this vivid narrative, and many of the beliefs and superstitions of the people are recorded. He told of the treatment of the body of a person accidentally drowned: “Last year, at the beginning of November [ 1635], a Savage was drowned when returning from fishing; he was interred on the seventeenth, without any ceremonies. On the same day snow fell in such abundance that it hid the earth all the winter; and our Savages did not fail to cast the blame on their not leaving cut up the dead person as usual. Such are the sacrifices they make to render Heaven favorable.” And regarding the Huron belief in the future state the same father wrote : “As to what is the state of the soul after death, they hold that it separates in such a way from the body that it does not abandon it immediately. When they bear it to the grave, it walks in front, and remains in the cemetery until the feast of the Dead; by night, it walks through the village and enters the Cabins, where it takes its part in the feasts, and eats what is left at evening in the kettle; whence it happens that many, on this account, do not willingly eat from it on the morrow; there are even some of them who will not go to the feasts made for the souls, believing that they would certainly die if they should even taste of the provisions prepared for them ; others, however, are not so scrupulous, and eat their fill. At the feast of the Dead, which takes place about every twelve years, the souls quit the cemeteries, and in the opinion of some are changed into Turtledoves, which they pursue later in the woods, with bow and arrow, to broil and eat; nevertheless the most common belief is that after this ceremony, they go away in company, covered as they are with robes and collars which have been put into the grave for them, to a great Village, which is toward the setting Sun, except, however, the old people and the little children who have not as strong limbs as the others to make this voyage; these remain in the country, where they have their own particular Villages.” Several very interesting details are revealed in the account of this great burial which occurred nearly three centuries ago. The first is the reference to the entire bodies being placed in the bottom of the pit. This obviously alludes to entire skeletons as distinguished from the bundles of detached or dissociated bones. If this was a recognized custom of the makers of the ossuaries it would be expected, when examining a great burial of this sort, to find the positions and general arrangement of the remains differing in various parts of the ancient pit; to find several strata, with a greater variety of bones in one than in the other. The second point of interest mentioned in this early narrative is that in which reference is made to the richness of the material deposited in the pit with the remains, but the greater part was of a perishable nature and should this pit be encountered at the present day its contents would probably resemble those of the ossuary discovered near Gasport in 1909. Other great burial places, similar to that discovered near Gasport, have been encountered in the same county, 10 miles or more south of Lake Ontario, on the Tuscarora Reservation. On the northern border of the reservation stood an ancient inclosure, and ” a little over half a mile west of the inclosure,” and about 20 rods distant from the edge of the bluff upon which it stood, ” was a large bone pit. It was marked by a low conical elevation, not over a foot and a, half high and 27 feet in diameter. Directly in the center was a slight depression in which lay a large flat stone with a number of similar stones under and around it. At the depth of 18 inches the bones seemed to have been disturbed. Among them was a Canadian penny. This, Mount Pleasant (the Tuscarora. chief) thought, may have been dropped in there by a missionary who, thirty years before, had found on the reservation a skull with an arrowhead sticking in it; or by some Indian, for it is, or was, an Indian custom to do this where bones have been disturbed, by way of paying for the disturbance or for some article taken from the grave. The bones seemed to have belonged to both sexes and were thrown in without order, they were, however, in a good state of preservation. Three copper rings were found near finger bones. The roots of trees that had stood above the pit made digging quite difficult; yet sixty skulls were brought to the surface, and it is quite likely that the pit contained as many as a hundred skeletons. The longest diameter of the pit was 9 feet; its depth 5 feet. There were no indications on the skulls of death from bullet wounds. Two similar elevations, one 18 or 20 feet, the other 10 rods, directly east of this pit, were opened sufficiently to show that they were burial places of a similar character. Like the first, these contained flat stones, lying irregularly near the top. Charcoal occurred in small pieces in all. Indian implements and ornaments, and several Revolutionary relics, were found in the adjoining field.” Another ossuary, evidently quite similar to the one described by Pere Le Jeune, was discovered in 1824, some 6 miles west of Lock, port, in Niagara County. ” The top of the pit was covered with small slabs of Medina sandstone, and was 24 feet square by 4 1/2 in depth, the planes agreeing with the four cardinal points. It was filled with human bones of both sexes and all ages. In one skull, two flint arrow heads were found, and many had the appearance of having been fractured and cleft open, by a sudden blow. They were piled in regular layers, but with no regard to size or sex. Pieces of pottery were picked up in the pit, and had also been ploughed up in the field adjacent.” The finding of “some metal tools with a French stamp ” prove the later burials to have been of comparatively recent origin. In the adjoining county of Erie, “upon a sandy, slightly elevated peninsula, which projects into a low tangled swamp,” about 12 miles southwest of Clarence Hollow, stood a small, irregular inclosure. Human remains were discovered when plowing the neighboring heights. About 1 mile to the eastward of the inclosure, occupying a dry, sandy spot, was an extensive ossuary, estimated to have contained 400 skeletons, “heaped promiscuously together. They were of individuals of every age and sex. In the same field are found a great variety of Indian relics, also brass cap and belt plates, and other remains of European origin.” Near this point was discovered, ” a year or two since, a skeleton surrounded by a quantity of rude ornaments. It had been placed in a cleft of the rock, the mouth of which was covered by a large flint stone.” Many other references to great communal burials, similar to those already described, could be quoted. All, however, seem to have been quite alike in appearance, the principal difference at the present time being in their size. When constructed some were undoubtedly more richly lined with robes of beaver skins and other furs than others, and the number and variety of objects deposited with the dead naturally varied. But as the greater proportion of the material placed in the pits with the remains was of a perishable nature all this has now disappeared, leaving only the fragmentary decomposed bones, which in turn will soon vanish, and little will remain to indicate the great communal burial places.


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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