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Choctaw Death and Burial Practices
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There appears to have been very little lamenting or mourning on the occasion of a death or a burial. The body was borne to the grave and the interment took place without a ceremony of any sort. In the event of the death of a man of great importance, however, the body was allowed to remain in state for a day before burial. During that time it was decorated with various ornaments and garments, but these were removed before interment. Such objects are said to have been preserved and handed down from one generation to the next, and used whenever required.
Usually a hunter’s gun was placed in the grave with the body.
For a much larger work on death and burial practices amongst the Choctaw see: Introduction to the Study of Mortuary Customs Among the North American Indians
The period of mourning varied with the age of the deceased. For a child or young person it was about three months, but for an older person, as one s mother or father, from six months to one year. As the Choctaw dealt with in this paper have been under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church for many years, it is not surprising that they have modified some of their primitive beliefs regarding the future state. But even in spite of Christian teaching many of their ancient ideas have persisted.
From 1845 until his death in 1887 Père Adrian Rouquette lived among the Choctaw, the greater part of his time being spent at either Bayou Lacomb or Chinchuba, although the first of his three chapels was near Bonfouca, some eight miles east of Bayou Lacomb. By the Choctaw Père Rouquette was known as Chataima, literally “Choctaw-like,” from his fancied resemblance to a Choctaw. His hair, which was dark and straight, was worn long, his eyes were dark and piercing, and the natural swarthiness of his complexion was increased by constant exposure to sun and wind. The two women, Emma and Louisa, now living at Bayou Lacomb, when children were baptized by Père Rouquette, and the former was one of the Choctaw who followed his body through the streets of New Orleans and carried wreaths made by the Sisters at Chinchuba.
It is evident that, before the coming of Père Rouquette, the Choctaw did not agree even among themselves regarding the future state. Some held to the belief that with death all existence ceases. They seem to have had a vague idea of a spirit in the body, but when the spirit died, then man, or rather the body, ceases to move. Others, who are said to have constituted the predominating element in the tribe, had a radically different conception of man’s future state. These believed in the existence of two spirits—Aba being “the good spirit above” and Nanapolo “the bad spirit.” While they insisted that a spirit abides in every Choctaw, still they were of the opinion that all spirits do not leave the earth after death, as explained by the peculiar belief set forth below.
Persons dying by violent deaths involving loss of blood, even a few drops, d0 not pass to the home of Aba (heaven), regardless of the character of their earthly lives, or their rank in the tribe. At night spirits are wont to travel along the trails and roads used by living men and thus avoid meeting the bad spirit, Nanapolo, whose wanderings are confined to the dark and unfrequented paths of the forest. The spirits of men like the country traversed and occupied by living men, and that is why Shilup, the ghost, is often seen moving among the trees or following persons after sunset.
The spirits of all persons not meeting violent deaths, with the exception of those only who murder or attempt to murder their fellow Choctaw, go to the home of Aba. There it is always spring, with sunshine and flowers; there are birds and fruit and game in abundance. There the Choctaw ever sing and dance, and trouble is not known. All who enter this paradise become equally virtuous without regard to their state while on earth.
The unhappy spirits who fail to reach the home of Aba remain on earth in the vicinity of the places where they have died. But Nanapolo, the bad spirit, is never able to gain possession of the spirit of a Choctaw.
The women cut their hair and “cried” at certain times near the grave.
When a person desired to cease mourning he stuck into the ground so as to form a triangle three pieces of wood, each several feet in length, about one foot apart. The tops of these sticks were drawn together and tied with a piece of bright-colored cloth or ribbon. This object was placed near tile door or entrance of the lodge and indicated to all that the occupant desired to cease mourning.
During the next three days the mourners cried or wailed three times each day at sunrise, at noon, and at sunset. While wailing they wrapped blankets around their heads and sat or knelt upon the ground. During these three days the friends of the mourners gathered and began dancing and feasting. At the expiration of the time they ceased weeping and joined in the festivities, which continued another day.
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