CHAPTER VII. 1636, 1637. THE FEAST OF THE DEAD.
HURON GRAVES. - PREPARATION FOR THE CEREMONY. - DISINTERMENT. -
THE MOURNING. - THE FUNERAL MARCH. - THE GREAT SEPULCHRE. -
FUNERAL GAMES. - ENCAMPMENT OF THE MOURNERS. - GIFTS. - HARANGUES. -
FRENZY OF THE CROWD. - THE CLOSING SCENE. - ANOTHER RITE. -
THE CAPTIVE IROQUOIS. - THE SACRIFICE.
Mention has been made of those great depositories of human bones found at the present day in the ancient country of the Hurons. [ See Introduction. ] They have been a theme of abundant speculation; [ 1 ] yet their origin is a subject, not of conjecture, but of historic certainty. The peculiar rites to which they owe their existence were first described at length by Brebeuf, who, in the summer of the year 1636, saw them at the town of Ossossane.
[ 1 Among those who have wondered and speculated over these remains is Mr. Schoolcraft. A slight acquaintance with the early writers would have solved his doubts. ]
The Jesuits had long been familiar with the ordinary rites of sepulture among the Hurons; the corpse placed in a crouching posture in the midst of the circle of friends and relatives; the long, measured wail of the mourners; the speeches in praise of the dead, and consolation to the living; the funeral feast; the gifts at the place of burial; the funeral games, where the young men of the village contended for prizes; and the long period of mourning to those next of kin. The body was usually laid on a scaffold, or, more rarely, in the earth. This, however, was not its final resting-place. At intervals of ten or twelve years, each of the four nations which composed the Huron Confederacy gathered together its dead, and conveyed them all to a common place of sepulture. Here was celebrated the great "Feast of the Dead," - in the eyes of the Hurons, their most solemn and important ceremonial.
In the spring of 1636, the chiefs and elders of the Nation of the Bear - the principal nation of the Confederacy, and that to which Ihonatiria belonged - assembled in a general council, to prepare for the great solemnity. There was an unwonted spirit of dissension. Some causes of jealousy had arisen, and three or four of the Bear villages announced their intention of holding their Feast of the Dead apart from the rest. As such a procedure was thought abhorrent to every sense of propriety and duty, the announcement excited an intense feeling; yet Brebeuf, who was present, describes the debate which ensued as perfectly calm, and wholly free from personal abuse or recrimination. The secession, however, took place, and each party withdrew to its villages to gather and prepare its dead.
The corpses were lowered from their scaffolds, and lifted from their graves. Their coverings were removed by certain functionaries appointed for the office, and the hideous relics arranged in a row, surrounded by the weeping, shrieking, howling concourse. The spectacle was frightful. Here were all the village dead of the last twelve years. The priests, connoisseurs in such matters, regarded it as a display of mortality so edifying, that they hastened to summon their French attendants to contemplate and profit by it. Each family reclaimed its own, and immediately addressed itself to removing what remained of flesh from the bones. These, after being tenderly caressed, with tears and lamentations, were wrapped in skins and adorned with pendent robes of fur. In the belief of the mourners, they were sentient and conscious. A soul was thought still to reside in them; [ 1 ] and to this notion, very general among Indians, is in no small degree due that extravagant attachment to the remains of their dead, which may be said to mark the race.
[ 1 In the general belief, the soul took flight after the great ceremony was ended. Many thought that there were two souls, one remaining with the bones, while the other went to the land of spirits. ]
These relics of mortality, together with the recent corpses, - which were allowed to remain entire, but which were also wrapped carefully in furs, - were now carried to one of the largest houses, and hung to the numerous cross-poles, which, like rafters, supported the roof. Here the concourse of mourners seated themselves at a funeral feast; and, as the squaws of the household distributed the food, a chief harangued the assembly, lamenting the loss of the deceased, and extolling their virtues. This solemnity over, the mourners began their march for Ossossane, the scene of the final rite. The bodies remaining entire were borne on a kind of litter, while the bundles of bones were slung at the shoulders of the relatives, like fagots. Thus the procession slowly defiled along the forest pathways, with which the country of the Hurons was everywhere intersected; and as they passed beneath the dull shadow of the pines, they uttered at intervals, in unison, a dreary, wailing cry, designed to imitate the voices of disembodied souls winging their way to the land of spirits, and believed to have an effect peculiarly soothing to the conscious relics which each man bore. When, at night, they stopped to rest at some village on the way, the inhabitants came forth to welcome them with a grave and mournful hospitality.