The Comanche Indians Mortuary Practices
The Comanches of Indian Territory (Nem, we, or us, people), according to Dr. Fordyce Grinnell, of the Wichita Agency, Indian Territory, go to the opposite extreme, so far as the protection of the dead from the surrounding earth is concerned. The account as received is given entire, as much to illustrate this point as others of interest.
When a Comanche is dying, while the death-rattle may yet be faintly heard in the throat, and the natural warmth has not departed from the body, the knees are strongly bent upon the chest, and the legs flexed upon the thighs. The arms are also flexed upon each side of the chest, and the head bent forward upon the knees. A lariat, or rope, is now used to firmly bind the limbs and body in this position. A blanket is then wrapped around the body, and this again tightly corded, so that the appearance when ready for burial is that of an almost round and compact body, very unlike the composed pall of his Wichita or Caddo brother. The body is then taken and placed in a saddle upon a pony, in a sitting posture; a squaw usually riding behind, though sometimes one on either side of the horse, holds the body in position until the place of burial is reached, when the corpse is literally tumbled into the excavation selected for the purpose. The deceased is only accompanied by two or three squaws, or enough to perform the little labor bestowed upon the burial. The body is taken due west of the lodge or village of the bereaved, and usually one of the deep washes or heads of cañons in which the Comanche country abounds is selected, and the body thrown in, without special reference to position. With this are deposited the bows and arrows; these, however, are first broken. The saddle is also placed in the grave, together with many of the personal valuables of the departed. The body is then covered over with sticks and earth, and sometimes stones are placed over the whole.
Funeral ceremonies.—the best pony owned by the deceased is brought to the grave and killed, that the departed may appear well mounted and caparisoned among his fellows in the other world. Formerly, if the deceased were a chief or man of consequence and had large herds of ponies, many were killed, sometimes amounting to 200 or 300 head in number.
The Comanches illustrate the importance of providing a good pony for the convoy of the deceased to the happy-grounds by the following story, which is current among both Comanches and Wichitas:
“A few years since, an old Comanche died who had no relatives and who was quite poor. Some of the tribe concluded that almost any kind of a pony would serve to transport him to the next world. They therefore killed at his grave an old, ill-conditioned, lop-eared horse. But a few weeks after the burial of this friendless one, lo and behold he returned, riding this same old worn-out horse, weary and hungry. He first appeared at the Wichita camps, where he was well known, and asked for something to eat, but his strange appearance, with sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, filled with consternation all who saw him, and they fled from his presence. Finally one bolder than the rest placed a piece of meat on the end of a lodge-pole and extended it to him. He soon appeared at his own camp, creating, if possible, even more dismay than among the Wichitas, and this resulted in both Wichitas and Comanches leaving their villages and moving en masse to a place on Rush Creek, not far distant from the present site of Fort Sill.
“When the troubled spirit from the sunsetting world was questioned why he thus appeared among the inhabitants of earth, he made reply that when he came to the gates of paradise the keepers would on no account permit him to enter upon such an ill-conditioned beast as that which bore him, and thus in sadness he returned to haunt the homes of those whose stinginess and greed permitted him no better equipment. Since this no Comanche has been permitted to depart with the sun to his chambers in the west without a steed which in appearance should do honor alike to the rider and his friends.”
The body is buried at the sunsetting side of the camp, that the spirit may accompany the setting sun to the world beyond. The spirit starts on its journey the following night after death has taken place; if this occur at night, the journey is not begun until the next night.
Mourning observances.—All the effects of the deceased, the tents, blankets, clothes, treasures, and whatever of value, aside from the articles which have been buried with the body, are burned, so that the family is left in poverty. This practice has extended even to the burning of wagons and harness since some of the civilized habits have been adopted. It is believed that these ascend to heaven in the smoke, and will thus be of service to the owner in the other world. Immediately upon the death of a member of the household, the relatives begin a peculiar wailing, and the immediate members of the family take off their customary apparel and clothe themselves in rags and cut themselves across the arms, breast, and other portions of the body, until sometimes a fond wife or mother faints from loss of blood. This scarification is usually accomplished with a knife, or, as in earlier days, with a flint. Hired mourners are employed at times who are in no way related to the family, but who are accomplished in the art of crying for the dead. These are invariably women. Those nearly related to the departed, cut off the long locks from the entire head, while those more distantly related, or special friends, cut the hair only from one side of the head. In case of the death of a chief, the young warriors also cut the hair, usually from the left side of the head.
After the first few days of continued grief, the mourning is conducted more especially at sunrise and sunset, as the Comanches venerate the sun; and the mourning at these seasons is kept up, if the death occurred in summer, until the leaves fall, or, if in the winter, until they reappear.
It is a matter of some interest to note that the preparation of the corpse and the grave among the Comanches is almost identical with the burial customs of some of the African tribes, and the baling of the body with ropes or cords is a wide and common usage of savage peoples. The hiring of mourners is also a practice which has been very prevalent from remotest periods of time.