Manhattan Island and Southward

An early description of the burial customs of the native inhabitants of New Netherlands, probably based on some ceremonies witnessed on or near Manhattan Island, explains the manner and position in which the remains were deposited in the grave. “Whenever an Indian departs this life, all the residents of the place assemble at the funeral. To a distant stranger, who has not a friend or relative in the place, they pay the like respect. They are equally careful to commit the body to the earth, without neglecting any of the usual ceremonies, according to the standing of the deceased. In deadly diseases, they are faithful to sustain and take care of each other. Whenever a soul has departed, the nearest relatives extend the limbs and close the eyes of the dead; after the body has been watched and wept over several days and nights, they bring it to the grave, wherein they do not lay it down, but place it in a sitting posture upon a stone or a block of wood, as if the body were sitting upon a stool; then they place a pot, kettle, platter, spoon, with some provisions and money, near the body in the grave; this they say is necessary for the journey to the other world. Then they place as much wood around the body as will keep the earth from it. Above the grave they place a large pile of wood, stone or earth, and around and above the same they place palisades resembling a small dwelling. This account may be equally applicable to the Algonquian tribes of the valley of the Hudson and the neighboring Iroquoian people who lived a short distance west of that stream. Evidently there is one slight error in the description, as the body was not placed in a horizontal position but arranged in a “sitting posture.” It would have been useless to have extended the limbs as mentioned. Probably soon after death the body was flexed and wrapped, preparatory to being placed in the grave, and as will be shown later, this was likewise the custom. among other tribes. It is interesting to recall how often the covering over the grave was likened to a small dwelling, and this tends to remind one of the customs of the ancient people of Egypt who, during the X, XI, and XII Dynasties (3600 to 3300 B. C.), placed pottery models of the dwellings of the living on the graves of the dead, “soul-houses” of various types and sizes, representing many forms of habitations and other structures. These were prepared as places for the soul to remain, to appease it and prevent it returning to the village. Could the dwelling-like covering over the graves of American aborigines have resulted from similar beliefs and desires? A number of burials have been encountered at different times in the. vicinity of Manhattan Island, on Staten Island, and near Pelham and other near-by places on the shore of the sound. A few years ago a Munsee cemetery was uncovered near Montague. New Jersey, where both flexed and extended burials were unearthed. This burial place evidently belonged to the transition period, the earlier graves being of the primitive form, the later containing various objects of European make. The Munsee, just mentioned, formed one of the three principal divisions of the Delaware, and it is within reason to suppose that when some of the burials discovered in the cemetery at Montague had been made ceremonies had been enacted similar to’that described by Heckewelder.

He wrote

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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