The Washerwoman’s Genes

February 3, 2006

Rebundled Bones

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 6:35 pm

According to George Irving Quimby, the Indian civilizations of the upper Great Lakes region had quite elaborate funerary practices, suggesting a complex religious life, one in which ancestors played a significant part.

I’ve been reading one of his books, attracted by the coincidence of his last name with my g-g-grandmother Jannette’s. He was an early ethnologist, himself collecting specimens of native artifacts from the 1930s onward. In a biographical article, he says his interest in Indians dates from childhood, when he learned that one of his ancestors was killed by them.

The Huron, a tribe of what is now Ontario, played with bones, quite literally. Likely descendents of the ancient Hopewellian mound builders of the Midwest, the Hurons practiced a type of mass burial. When someone died, a temporary grave was dug. But at regular intervals, ten years or so, all the recently dead were disinterred, their bones removed to a central location. The process was lengthy, ritualized, and, by our standards today, grotesque. Called the Feast of the Dead, the rituals were nationwide. Quimby quotes an eyewitness account by a missionary, who described how the graves were opened and the corpses displayed, revealing a variety of states of decomposition and natural preservation. And then, the witness wrote, “. . . after some time they strip them of their flesh, taking off the skin and flesh (by handfuls) which they throw into the fire along with robes and mats in which the bodies were wrapped.”

The bones were placed in leather bags with ceremonial objects or dressed in fine garments and ornaments, and perhaps rearticulated or made into an effigy. The townspeople then transported the bodies to the site where the mound was to be erected. Days of ceremonies ensued, with the bodies displayed and ultimately placed in a pit ten feet deep, 30 to 60 feet square.

Before the Huron, the ancient mound builders lived A.D. 800-1600 in today’s Wisconsin. They may have adopted their funeral practices from other groups, perhaps Dakotan or Algonquin. They buried their dead in pits and erected low mounds four feet in height and running dozens or hundreds of feet in length, sometimes in the shape of animals. Often, the bodies were re-interments from previous burials.

They believed that, once resettled in these central mounds, the souls could proceed onward to heavenly villages.

Messing with the bones of the dead, realigning them in families and communities, re-imagining their lives–the births and baptisms of children, the marriages and the surviving, the remarrying and the widowing–what we do as genealogists is our own feast of the dead. More solitary, more silent, but still: care and tending of those who went before.

[Note: Fifty years on, Quimby’s observations may be outdated, but they are suggestive nevertheless. And he is, perhaps, a distant lateral relation to me.]

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