Tuesday, December 20, 2016

California Yosemite Indians Cremation of the Dead


In the early days of the settlement of California, it seemed to be the universal custom of the Indians along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range of mountains to burn the bodies of their dead.

A suitable pile of readily combustible wood was prepared. The body was taken charge of by persons chosen to perform the last sacred rites, and firmly bound in skins or blankets, and then placed upon the funeral pyre, with all the personal effects of the deceased, together with numerous votive offerings from friends and relatives. The chief mourners of the occasion seemed to take but little active part in the ceremonies. When all was ready, one of the assistants would light the fire, and the terrible, wailing, mournful cry would commence, and the professional chanters, with peculiar sidling movements and frantic gestures, would circle round and round about the burning pile. Occasionally, on arriving at the northwest corner of the pile, they would stop, and, pointing to the West, would end a crying refrain by exclaiming "Him-i-la´-ha!" When these became exhausted, others would step in and take their places, and thus keep up the mournful ceremony until the whole pile was consumed.
After the pile had cooled, the charred bones and ashes were gathered up, a few pieces of bone selected, and the remainder buried. Of the pieces retained, some would be sent to distant relatives, and the others pounded to a fine powder, then mixed with pine pitch and plastered on the faces of the nearest female relatives as a badge of mourning, to be kept there until it naturally wore off. Every Indian camp used to have some of these hideous looking old women in it in the "early days."

One principal reason for burning the bodies of the dead was the belief that there is an evil spirit, waiting and watching for the animating spirit or soul to leave the body, that he may get it to take to his own world of darkness and misery. By burning the perishable body they thought that the immortal soul would be more quickly released and set free to speed to the happy spirit world in the El--win, or far distant West, while with their loud, wailing cries the evil spirit was kept awa

The young women take great care of their long, shiny, black hair, of which they all feel very proud, as adding much to their personal beauty, and they seldom have it cut before marriage. But upon the death of a husband the wife has her hair all cut off and burned with his body, so that he may still have it in his future spirit home, to love and caress as a memento of his living earth-wife.