Death customs and Rituals

By Jasen Sylvester Benwah

je'sn penwa
Thunder Cloud

Column Six

Pjila'si (welcome),

My father died October 2003 and it was a very sobering and solemn event, where my family and I celebrated his passing and mourned his loss at the same time. He was an elder who had many stories to tell. He was no longer suffering but I will miss him deeply and I always will. I was given the honour of having carried his name as my middle name all my life. This gives me my own way of paying tribute to him - by spelling out out his name when I write my own. This brings me to think of our ancestors. It gave me some comfort to know that they also treated death with great respect. In regards to death and dying the Jesuits said this of the Mi'kmaq:

"The sick man having been appointed by the Antmoin [medicine authority] to die, as we have said, all the relations and neighbors assemble and, with the greatest possible solemnity, he delivers his funeral oration: he recites his heroic deeds, gives some directions to his family, recommends his friends: finally, says adieu. This is all there is of their wills. As to gifts, they make none at all; but, quite different from us, the survivors give some to the dying man, as you will hear. But we must accept the Tabagie, for it is a general injunction, which must be observed everywhere, so that the ceremonies may be according to law."

"So if the dying man has some supplies on hand, he must make Tabagie [great celebration and feast] of them for all his relatives and friends. While it is being prepared, those who are present exchange gifts with him in token of friendship; dogs, skins, arrows, etc. They kill these dogs in order to send them on before him into the other world. The said dogs are afterwards served at the Tabagie, for they find them palatable. Having banqueted they begin to express their sympathy and sorrowful Farewells, their hearts weep and bleed because their good friend is going to leave them and go away; but he may go fearlessly, since he leaves behind him beautiful children, who are good hunters and brave men: and good friends, who will avenge his wrongs, etc. They go on in this way until the dying man expires and then they utter horrible cries; and a terrible thing are their Nænias [funeral dirges] which continue day and night, sometimes lasting a whole week, according to how great the deceased is, and to the amount of provisions for the mourners. If there are none at all, they only bury the dead man, and postpone the obsequies and ceremonies until another time and place, at the good pleasure of their stomachs. Meanwhile all the relatives and friends daub their faces with black, and very often paint themselves with other colors; but this they do to appear more pleasing and beautiful. To them black is a sign of grief and mourning."

"They bury their dead in this manner: First they swathe the body and tie it up in skins; not lengthwise, but with the knees against the stomach and the head on the knees, as we are in our mother's womb. Afterwards they put it in the grave, which has been made very deep, not upon the back or lying down as we do, but sitting. A posture which they like very much, and which among them signifies reverence. For the children and the youths seat themselves thus in the presence of their fathers, and of the old, whom they respect. We laugh at them, and tell them that way of sitting is the fashion with monkeys, but they like it and find it convenient. When the body is placed, as it does not come up even with the ground on account of the depth of the grave, they arch the grave over with sticks, so that the earth will not fall back into it, and thus they cover up the tomb. If it is some illustrious personage they build a Pyramid or monument of interlacing poles; as eager in that for glory as we are in our marble and porphyry. If it is a man, they place there as a sign and emblem, his bow, arrows, and shield; if a woman, spoons, matachias or jewels, ornaments, etc."

"I have nearly forgotten the most beautiful part of all; it is that they bury with the dead man all that he owns, such as his bag, his arrows, his skins and all his other articles and baggage, even his dogs if they have not been eaten. Moreover, the survivors add to these a number of other such offerings, as tokens of friendship. Judge from this whether these good people are not far removed from this cursed avarice which we see among us; who, to become possessed of the riches of the dead, desire and seek eagerly for the loss and departure of the living."

"These obsequies finished, they flee from the place, and, from that time on, they hate all memory of the dead. If it happens that they are obliged to speak of him sometimes, it is under another and a new name. As for instance, the Sagamore Schoudon being dead, he was called "the Father" Membertou was called "the great Captain," and so on."

There were probably some minor local variations to some of these traditions, but overall it is a good representation of how things were done. It is very important that we understand our past traditions, and it is for this reason I present these columns of Mi'kmaq history- to bring continual awareness to ourselves and to other cultures.

Today, most celebrate death, like many other rituals according to the relegion practised. While I am not trying to convince anyone to revert back to the old ways- it is important that we be aware of them. It helps us appreciate our culture and it helps us see how much we have changed. I have to admire our ancestors for their wisdom and respect. I encourage my Mi'kmaq brethren to ask the elders, to learn all they can about our past and about our culture and traditions. We must pass this on to our kids.

Compiled by Jasen S. Benwah

Local Mi'kmaq Researcher

Cape St. George, NL.(Ktaqamkuk)

jasenbenwah@hotmail.com

www.benoitfirestnation.ca

Wantaqo'ti, (peace).

Appears in the March 2-8, 2004 issue of The Georgian Newspaper of St. George's Bay, Newfoundland.

The Georgian Newspaper, 2003

Sources:

Conne River

 

Website Copyright © 2004 Jasen Sylvester Benwah