Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/October 1884/Curious Funeral Ceremonies


AMONG the most striking features of the popular life and thought which the student of the different races of mankind has to consider are the ideas and usages that are grouped around death. The fact of death, on account of its absolute certainty as well as on account of its nature, is the incident of human existence that has struck all peoples with the most solemn impressiveness. If there are any races who appear indifferent to death, it will most probably be found on examination that their feeling is not the natural one, but the resultant of modifications that have been impressed upon it by some feature of their religious system or under the influence of peculiar ideas of duty and virtue. The ancient Egyptians, so far as their monuments have revealed them to us, lived in constant view of death, and made the preparation for it, both for the care of their bodies and the salvation of their souls, the most important work of their lives. No other people seem to have paid so paramount attention to it; but few if any tribes have ignored it or relegated it to an insignificant place.

The ideas about death and the customs associated with it are as various as are the tribes. They have been formed under the influence of the surroundings and local circumstances among which the people have lived, have been molded by religious beliefs and institutions, and have been affected by historical changes. A substantial sameness in reference to them prevails at this time among civilized nations, particularly in the higher and more cultivated classes; but, even in these nations, we have to go only a little way into the rural districts, among the peasantry, to find the most quaint and curious customs still in vogue, coming down from the times cf heathenism and barbarism, before conventionality had become the potent social force that it is. Very interesting illustrations of these survivals of old-time notions may be found in the provinces of Hungary, whose polyglot nationalities of various origin and history have hardly yet begun to feel the influences that have nearly reduced the busy population of the cities to a European homogeneity. A few of the most striking customs of these peoples have been studied by Herr Hugo Klein and described by him in "Das Ausland," and from his article is derived what follows in that division of our subject.

A characteristic of the funeral ceremonies of the Magyars is the feast which is eaten by the relatives and friends of the deceased after the burial, and is frequently accompanied by religious songs. The custom is beautifully illustrated in Palota, where the hymns are sung as the guests separate. The singing is continued on the streets, and the soft, clear tones of the, dirge can be heard in all parts of the town. In Agard, fruit-trees are planted around the graves, to mark them in the years to come after time and the elements have removed the wooden crosses that are set at their heads. In Bonghad, the dead were formerly escorted with torches to their eternal rest.

The funeral pomp formerly displayed by the Magyars in Transylvania reached a mark that defies description. The coffin was covered with gold-embroidered velvet fastened with silver nails bearing the arms of the deceased. The man's weapons and the woman's jewels and dresses, frequently to the value of many thousands, were deposited in the grave. If the deceased was a great land-holder, the bells were tolled twice a day from the time of death till the burial, and all the families within the circle of his acquaintance were invited to witness the ceremonies, so that sometimes the village could hardly contain all who came. Special officers were appointed to direct the proceedings, and these, with the magnificent catafalque and the two armored knights who rode by its side, followed by the favorite horse of the deceased, and an attendant carrying his arms plated with silver, or a banner inscribed with his epitaph, constituted an imposing head to the long procession of black- or purple-clad mourners and guests. The services in the church were set off in a corresponding style. Many persons spent the income of weeks for prayers to be said for the deceased, to drape churches in black, to dress a legion of servants in mourning, or to furnish the torches for the funeral; and sometimes large collections of eulogies and verses were published to commemorate the good deeds which the dead man had performed in life. Funerals are told of that cost from ten to twelve thousand gulden—an immense sum in those days. The extravagance of these observances finally reached such a height that an ordinance had to be promulgated in 1747, limiting the expenditure that could be allowed.

In the grave-yards of the Palovzes, in the counties of Borsod and Heves, may be seen here and there pyramidal monuments of stone, with niches in their sides for images of the saints. They are a survival from the ancient heathen altars of these people, the Kumanians of old, which were erected in honor of the sun-god; and to this day also may be seen on many of the houses of the Palovzes the symbol of the pyramid with Baal's eye, the use of which has come down from generation to generation, without the peasants knowing what it means. Children who die still-born, or without having received baptism, are buried as near as possible to the pyramidal monuments. It is a part of the folk-lore of the Palovzes that the little ones who are laid to rest near these Baal-pillars will at the end of seven years come out from their graves, when, if some good soul will come near them and utter the baptismal formula, they will immediately become little angels and go to heaven; but, if the baptism is not given, they will have to wait seven years longer for another opportunity to be released. Many other reminiscences of Baal-worship survive among these people. The mother who has lost a young child wraps her head, as a sign of mourning, in a fiery red cloth. The former prevalence of cremation is indicated in the custom of burning the clothes which the deceased wore last. The tear-jugs of the ancients may still be found in the houses, of exactly the old form and size, but destined to a quite different purpose. Another peculiar custom at the funeral feast is to lay a plate with salt and bread upon the table, for the use of the soul of the departed one, if it should appear in the circle of friends.

The Servians put lighted candles in the hands of their dead, and a saint's image on their breast, and set lights around the bier. They leave all the furniture in the house undisturbed, so that the released soul shall not lose its way. For several days food and drink are taken to the grave.

The Roumanians preserve many of the customs of the Romans, from whom they claim descent. Men who have lost their wives signify their mourning by going bareheaded for six months.

To the Ruthenians, death is a greatly dreaded visitor, and calls out most demonstrative expressions of grief. They now put the pipe and tobacco-box of the deceased in the grave, as in ancient times they used to deposit his armor there. All the furniture is removed from the place before the dead man is taken from the house, so that the escaping soul shall not be held back by its attachment to the familiar arrangement of the room—a custom which in itself, and in the thought that suggests it, contrasts curiously with the Servian fashion. When the coffin is being borne out, it is set down upon the door-step, so that the walls of the house may know that one of its inmates has left it.

The custom of providing the deceased with an obolus, or a piece of money to pay the ferryman over the river of death, prevails among the Roumanians, who derive it from the Romans, and among the Slovaks of North Hungary, who never had anything to do with the Romans. Among the Slovaks, the coffin of a young girl is red, while her dress is black, that being to them the color of innocence, and a sprig of rosemary is put in the hand of the corpse. A lighted taper is set at the head of the casket.

Among barbarous and savage races, the diversities in funeral customs are endless, and often mark strange and paradoxical notions of life and death. They may still be witnessed in the islands of the sea and in the "Dark Continent," where civilization and foreign influences have hardly made a scratch, in all their pristine originality and freshness. A large book would not suffice to contain the descriptions of them all. We give here only a few of the hundreds of specimens we might present, culled from the most recent accounts of travelers and missionaries:

Herr F. Grabowsky relates, in an account of that people, that the Maanjans of Southeastern Borneo set great store upon dying in their own house, and on having their funeral celebrated in their native village. When the signal of death is sounded in solemn, rhythmic beats on the garangtong, the village is supposed to become partially unclean, and particular observances are imposed on the people. The soul of the deceased is imagined to wander about the place uneasily till the funeral services are performed, and the night to be its day. Hence, every person who has to leave the place for any reason makes it a point to do so before sunset; and, if he has to go out later, he avoids speaking to anybody, and every one shuns him. According to the superstitions of this people, the souls return from the spirit-world to the earth after seven generations; and, if a pregnant woman craves, for instance, sour fruits, it is said that a soul from the other world has returned to dwell in her, in order to be born to life again. As soon as the dying man has breathed his last, the mourning-women begin their howling, the corpse is dressed and set in funeral array; a fowl is slaughtered; the coffin is prepared, and the body crowded side wise into it. Half the clothes, money, rice, and usual necessities of life of the deceased, and the feet of the slaughtered hen, are placed in the coffin with the body, while the rest is consumed by the mourners. The grave is built up in the form of a stepped pyramid, the terraces of which are supported by planks, and over it is erected a canopy under which are deposited articles which the deceased has used. At seven and at forty-nine days after the burial, a second and a third fowl are slaughtered, and a part of them is carried ceremonially to the grave. The term of forty-nine days marks the period of mourning for an adult, while only seven days are given to a child; and during this time the family must refrain from eating rice and satisfy themselves with a less desirable and much less palatable kind of grain. With the observance of this season all the duties toward the Sead are fulfilled till the time of the djamä, or the feast in commemoration of the entrance of the soul into the spirit-world. This festival is celebrated every two or three years, and all the families in the village that have lost a member during the interval join in defraying the expense of it. An invitation to the djamä is one of those things that are not declined. The festival lasts through seven days, to each of which is assigned some feature in the preparation for the ceremonial of cremation. A crematory is built, to which the dead are brought, amid the howlings of the mourning-women. A brief formula is recited by the wadian, or priest, over each body, as it is brought up, and it is then lifted upon the hearth. After the burning the ashes are placed without any further ceremony in a vessel called an agong, and this is deposited in the tambak, or family sepulchre, a structure which is erected upon posts a short distance above the ground. Children under seven years of age are not cremated, but their bodies are placed at once in the tambak. They must be purified, however, before they can enter the heavenly city, and this is done by sacrificing a hog on the day following that of their death. Seven days after the djamä, the siwah a feast of propitiation, is given, when priestly ceremonies are performed, with eating, drinking, and sports. The viands which are eaten at these feasts must not be allowed to touch the ground, and are therefore brought to the feasting-place on wooden stands from one to two feet high. The really important act of the siwah is the manrus-ira or blood-bath, a ceremonial that might well excite horror. Four fowls, four goats, and four swine, are slaughtered on a latticed platform, and their blood is allowed to drip down upon the ground below. The multitude rush to the spot to bathe in the blood; women with nursing infants, children of every age and both sexes, decrepit old men and vigorous young men, besmear their faces, their heads, their breasts, and in fact their whole bodies, with the warm streaming blood of the slaughtered animals, which are then cooked and eaten.

A missionary in Batavia states that the people of the Island of Sumba, in the residence of Timor, drape the corpses of their dead, and bind them in a sitting posture to a post which is planted in front of the house of the deceased. The body of a chief is allowed to remain there till it decays; but the bodies of other persons, after two or three days, are buried in a grave which is dug in the shape of a well, and is afterward covered with a heavy stone. The clothes of the deceased and his jewelry are buried with him. The friends of the dead man are expected, while the body is exposed, to visit it, bringing gifts of clothing and other articles of value. The graves are situated in the midst of the towns, and are carefully attended to by the inhabitants.

According to the descriptions of a Dutch missionary, the funeral feasts of the Island of Halmahera are quite elaborate affairs. The ceremonies begin, after the deceased has been put in his coffin, with a rope-dance between the young men and the maidens, in which either party tries to pull the rope away from the other, to the music of a monotonous antiphonal chant, and which is continued through several evenings, with complete freedom from interference by the old people. Then follow four or five days of feasting, to which the whole neighborhood is invited to contribute in provisions and services, marchers and dancers, the men and the women taking the prominent part in the ceremonies on alternate days. On the last day of the feast, as large a company as possible is collected, to give effect to the final ceremonies. The body is placed in the grave, and is adorned with ornaments, lights, and garlands, and supplied with dishes of betel and provisions. Another banquet is served, the rope-dance is repeated, and a new ceremony, called the toku, is performed. For this, the young men and the girls take places in opposite rows, each confronting pair joining hands. A child, festively dressed, is lifted up and made to walk upon the road formed by the pairs of hands, singing a refrain, to which the partners in the files chant a response. Each hand-joined couple in the rows withdraws as soon as the child has passed it, and takes a new place at the farther end, so as to prolong the walk to the extent that the occasion may seem to call for. As soon as this play is over, the rope-dance is transferred to the sea-beach, and the funeralends with a ducking-match between the boys and the girls.

Dr. Miclucho Maclay describes the Orang-Sakai tribes of New Guinea as having a terrible fear of the dead. As soon as any one among them becomes critically sick, he is carried out into the forest and left there with a small supply of food. His hut is immediately destroyed, and no one will ever build again on the place where it stood. The remains of abandoned unfortunates are frequently met in the wilderness, as well as the ruins of huts which have been given up on account of the occurrence of death among their inmates.

Herr J. C. Dieterle has published an account of the curious royal funerals and "customs" of Tepi-Land, on the West Coast of Africa. According to him, when the king becomes dangerously ill, he is placed under the close care of a circle of chosen attendants. The fact of his illness must not be mentioned directly, but may, when that is necessary, be alluded to in some roundabout phrase, or as if it were the speaker himself that were sick. At the same, time the affairs of the court go on in their usual course, one of the chiefs representing the king and offering to the people, when inquired of, some plausible excuse for his majesty's absence. When death takes place, all who are cognizant of the event, if they have not succeeded in running away, are put under guard, and the secret is kept as long as possible. Generally, however, some manage to escape, and they will give the news to their friends in obscure hints, saying, perhaps," Things are becoming dangerous," "The great tree has fallen," "Look out for the earthquake," but never plainly that the king is dead. Loud mourning is prohibited at this stage of the proceedings. The victims to be offered up are secured, and one is sacrificed, to lie at the feet of the corpse while it is prepared for burial. The body having been dressed and the head and breast sprinkled with gold-dust, if it can be afforded, his majesty's death is announced to the chiefs, still in some obscure phrase; as, "The king is unwell, and desires to see you," "The king has gone to bed and can not get up," "The only free is asleep"; and the chiefs, but no common man, under penalty of death, are admitted to view the body in private. The corpse is carried at crowing of the cock to the royal burial-place, where sheep are slain, and the favorite dishes of his majesty, of which no one is allowed to eat but the designated chief victims, are set before him. The chief victims have been selected beforehand, and are distinguished during life by a peculiar badge. They are sacrificed by breaking their necks, while the heads of the other victims are cut off by a band of executioners composed of relatives of his late majesty. The victims are usually persons who have committed some misdeed or have incurred the dislike of their fellow-slaves, and with them are offered up persons who have been sentenced to punishment and kept in reserve for the occasion. After these ceremonies are over, the wives of the king that have not been dispatched after him assemble around a ceremonial coffin and set up the stated mourning. The wives are expected to observe the conventionalities of mourning till they are given to the new king to be his wives, and this can not happen till after the celebration of the "customs," which is frequently delayed for a long time on account of the expense. The successor to the throne is chosen after consultation between the chiefs and the women of the royal family, in secret. Having been publicly proclaimed, the new king is instructed as to his own rights and duties and those of the tribe, is sworn to observe all that is prescribed, and then receives the homage of the chiefs, after which the royal feast is given and the royal gifts are bestowed. The enthronement takes place on the occasion of the periodical festival of the adäe when, in the midst of great feasts to the chiefs and their retinues, the throne is brought out and two of the nobles set the new king upon it three times, with the prayer: "Spirits of all the deceased kings, bless this our new king! Give him riches, health, and great honor before all people and before all his fellow-kings!" Sheep are sacrificed, court is held, and the people are entertained with dancing and a great noise. The "customs" for the deceased king do not take place till after the ceremonies of enthronement; and, as they involve great expense, they may be postponed for months or for years. They last for eight days, during which time every one in the capital must keep his head shaved and wear a prescribed dress. Another sacrifice of men is made, to which the chiefs must contribute in victims or money; and it is made with imposing publicity, amid the firing of guns and drumming and dancing. During all the ceremonials, from the death of the old king down, the executioners and guests from abroad and the members of the band that performed the burial of the king enjoy special privileges of taking what they like; and solitary persons find it prudent to keep out of their way. During the "customs" a figure intended to represent the deceased king is set up and honored with the characteristic noisy ceremonial of the people. Finally, it is carried away and deposited in a shrine; and this marks the end of the whole matter.

Whenever any one among the Hereros of Damara-Land, South Africa, becomes sick unto death, says the missionary C. G. Büttner, it is the custom for all the relatives of the sick man and the people of the vicinity to gather around his bedside, in such throngs as to fill the house, and witness the death. In health the Herero is satisfied to lie upon the bare ground, but, as soon as he becomes seriously ill, it is the imperative duty of some one of his near relatives to sit down by him, and hold his head with tender care. The people are not willing to recognize that any one can die from a purely natural cause, but always try to attribute the death to some external injury; and, if nothing of the kind can be detected, they will lay it to some accident, even of the most trifling character, that may have occurred years before; and if any one is known who has ever attacked the deceased, or struck him, he is liable to be fixed upon as the responsible agent. The body is buried at some spot near the place of death, sometimes in the spot itself, but, if the deceased was a very bad man, it is carried off as far and to as desolate a spot as possible, so that the ghost shall not come back and work mischief. Everything that belongs to the grave is tabooed, and must not be taken away under any circumstances; and so strictly is this rule observed, that, although fire-wood is extremely scarce, the palings that have been driven around the spot, and fallen down, or the hedge-bushes that have died may rot and disappear, no one will touch them. The burial is followed by a season of mourning, the ceremonial of which is performed by a band of hired mourners. The finest of cattle of the wealthy land-owner are slain, not by the usual method of stabbing, but by cutting off their heads, that their horns may be used to adorn the grave. The flesh of the cattle is given to be eaten to those who will in return join the band of mourners for a specified term. If the cattle are not slain all at once, but by installments, the means are thereby secured of prolonging the period of mourning for as long a time as the meat will hold out. It is common, after the head of a house has died, to remove the werst, or family residence. It is possible that this is done to get away from the malaria which the sickness and death of members of the family give notice has settled down upon the place; for malarious influences have been found to linger over into the year following one of extreme sickness. The children visit the graves of their parents only rarely, and then with much ceremony, to consult the oracle of their ancestors; and sometimes the oracle proclaims that the deceased desires again to enjoy the lowing of his cattle, when the son repairs to the grave with the herds. The Hereros are almost universally in as great terror of ghosts as any child among Europeans; and the household legends, which are transmitted from generation to generation, consist for the most part of stories of returned spirits. No one will venture out alone in the thick darkness; and, if one has to go at night for the missionary-doctor, he will not stir out without a.companion. Nothing in the world, says Herr Büttner, would move them to go into an anatomical museum, or to witness a dissection. Little as it troubles them to slay a beast, they will not lay hands on a human corpse without extreme compulsion. "The pictures in my anatomical atlas were an object of horror to them. When, during my last few months in Damara-Land, I was buying from the natives whatever I could get for specimens, I succeeded in overcoming their dread sufficiently to induce them to sell me a considerable number of magical charms; but not one of them would venture to bring me a skull, whatever price I offered them. A long box in which I had packed a lot of lances and bows, and which looked somewhat like a rough coffin, was a terror to all the people of my house, for how did they know that I was not going to fill it with the men's bones I was trying to buy? It was amusing to see how the men who afterward had to handle this box, lift it upon the wagon, etc., hurried with the greatest fear, so as to get it out of their hands as quickly as possible."