Death in the Mission

On the twenty-fifth day of March, James Wathin, a lad of about ten years of age, died of pneumonia. The disease had prevailed in our family for a number of weeks, and James had suffered severely with it, but had partially recovered from his attack, and we thought him out of danger. But owing perhaps to imprudence he suffered a relapse, from which we could not raise him; the physician did all that he could, but without success.

When we saw that the lad must die, we sent for his father, whose name was Beelah, and who resided near the Sugar-Loaf Mountain, thirty, miles distant. But James had died, was in his coffin, and we were ready to bury him when Beelah arrived. We were waiting that the father might be present when the son was buried. But Beelah came prepared to take the corpse home, to perform the funeral rites according to the ancient custom of his fathers. We did all in our power to change his purpose, but without effect; he remained firm in his determination to take the remains to his home and perform the burial services according to the customs of the tribe in their earlier and more palmy days.

Finding that arguments and entreaties would avail nothing, we assembled the students in the chapel, read a portion of Scripture, sung and prayed, gave a talk, and closed by reading the funeral service.

Beelah, though unable to understand our language, seemed to be deeply impressed, and during the service wept bitterly. He was an uneducated and irreligious man, and as nearly a heathen as any perhaps to be found in the nation. And yet he was a man of good character in his neighborhood and a friend of the schools. James was an only son, and his father had been exceedingly eager to have him well educated.

The coffin was placed in a box, which was fastened to a small sled, to which Beelah harnessed his pony. Then leading his horse it would require two days Per­haps to reach his home. Beelah’s wife was with him, but accommodated with a separate pony, upon which she rode quite comfortably.

James had been in the Academy over a year, had made fair progress in his studies, and was obedient and orderly in his conduct. He was not a member of the Church, but at that tender age, without a knowledge of our language, and having had no religious training at home, he was scarcely removed from infancy. We confidently believed that he did the best he could, and, therefore, through mercy, would be saved.

We felt peculiarly sad as we bid Beelah farewell, and saw him bearing away the lifeless remains of his only son. We felt the more when we remembered that his only object was to celebrate pagan funeral ceremonies. Their funeral is styled by them “the last cry.” A brief account of the ceremony will be proper in this connection:

When the husband dies the friends assemble, prepare the grave, and place the corpse in it, but do not fill it up. The gun, bow and arrows, hatchet and knife are deposited in the grave. Poles are planted at the head and the foot, upon which flags are placed; the grave is then inclosed by pickets driven in the ground. The funeral ceremonies now begin, the widow being the chief mourner. At night and morning she will go to the grave, and pour forth the most piteous cries and wailings. It is not important that any other member of the family should take any very active part in the “cry,” though they do participate to some extent.

The widow wholly neglects her toilet, while she daily goes to the grave to weep during one entire moon from the date when the death occurred. On the evening of the last day of the moon the friends all assemble at the cabin of the disconsolate widow, bring provisions for a sumptuous feast, which consists of corn and jerked-beef boiled together in a kettle. While the supper is preparing the bereaved wife goes to the grave, and pours out, with unusual vehemence, her bitter wailings and lamentations. When the food is thoroughly cooked the kettle is taken from the fire and placed in the center of the cabin, and the friends gather around it, passing the buffalo horn-spoon from hand to hand and from mouth to mouth till all have been bountifully supplied. While supper is being, served two of the oldest men of the company quietly withdraw, and go to the grave and fill it up, taking down the flags. All then join in a dance, which not unfrequently is continued till morning; the widow does not fail to unite in the dance, and to contribute her part to the festivities of the occasion. This is the ” last cry,” the days of mourning are ended, and the widow, is now ready to form another matrimonial alliance. The ceremonies are precisely the same when a man has lost his wife, and they are only slightly varied when any other member of the family has died. But at the time of our residence with them those heathenish ceremonies were not generally observed, yet they were occasionally practiced by the most ignorant and degraded of the tribe.

The Choctaws were very fond of ceremonies, and quite tenacious of rites and customs of long standing. They were not willing to bury their dead without a funeral service of some character. On one occasion an irreligious Indian man sent his servant to our mission, a distance of fourteen miles, to have a minister come and attend the funeral of an infant child.

But when they buried any of their colored servants funeral services were not observed. One of our neighbors lost a valuable negro man in the prime and vigor of manhood. An inflammatory bilious attack carried him off very suddenly. His mistress determined to bury him decently, and accordingly sent to have our carpenter make a pine box in which to deposit the remains of Cato, but she did not desire us to hold any funeral service on the occasion. It probably did not occur to her that a service would be appropriate, or that we would consent to worship at the grave of a deceased African. Mr. C., the carpenter, expressed deep sympathy for Mrs. R. in the loss of so valuable a piece of property. “Cato,” said he, ” was a valuable and good boy, and well worth six hundred dollars. Mrs. R is very unfortunate in losing such a slave!”

But he did not express any sympathy for Cato’s bereaved wife and fatherless children. Not a word was said with regard to the solemnities of death and the dread realities of that state to which the departed spirit had been introduced; not a syllable in regard to Cato’s moral fitness for death and the judgment. The pecuniary loss alone was remembered when the poor slave paid the debt of nature.



Benson, Henry C. Life Among the Choctaw Indians and Sketches of the South-West. L. Swormstedt & A. Poe. 1860.

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