In today’s post, I want to talk about a ceremony performed by the Native American peoples of what is now southern Ontario. The most well known participants in this ceremony were the Wendat, labeled as the Huron by contemporary Europeans and subsequent historians until rather recently. This ceremony is known as the Feast of the Dead, and yeah, it was as a macabre as it sounds. But it’s a fascinating example of how different people were 400 years ago – even the French Jesuits who witnessed this ceremony.
As noted by Paul Le Jeune in his Relations of 1636, the Wendat had “nothing more sacred,” than “their feast of the Dead.”1 And no, don’t worry, nobody was eating any dead people. The ceremony is known as the Feast of the Dead because “each family made a feast to its dead” in their longhouse. Though there was a part of the feast that would make modern readers cringe. The bodies of the deceased relative, having been exhumed, were brought into the cabin and made present at the feast.2 These bodies were wrapped in fur though, if that makes you feel any better. But, I think the Department of Health would have had a problem with it anyway.
So, why the hell did they eat diner with their dead relatives? Well, in the Wendat conception of the metaphysical universe, each person had two souls, each of which was immortal and indestructible. Upon an individual’s death, one soul “separates itself from the body at death, yet remains in the Cemetery until the feast of the Dead, after which it either changes into a Turtledove, or, according to the most common belief, it goes away at once to the village of the souls.” The second of our two souls, was “bound to the body, and inform[ed], so to speak, the corpse; it remain[ed] in the ditch of the dead after the feast, and never [left] it, unless someone b[ore] it again as a child.”3 So, it seems that at least one soul was always present with the body, and could thus explain why the Wendat felt compelled to bring the bodies of their deceased into their homes while consuming the feast in their honor.
Now, if you found that part of the story a little gross, you might not like what’s coming next. If you noticed, in the above quotation, Paul Le Jeune mentions something he calls, “the ditch of the dead.” This refers to what could be considered the main event of the Feast of the Dead. The Feast itself occurred about every 12 years, though there was no set schedule. When learning that a Feast had been called, families from all over Wendake (the Wendat name for their homeland), exhumed their dead. And, apparently, no pain was spared in this exhumation, as, even “if they ha[d] dead relatives in any part of the Country, they spare[d] no trouble to go for them; they t[ook] them from the Cemetaries, b[ore] them on their shoulders, and cover[ed] them with the finest robes they h[ad].”4 Though this was part of a most solemn ceremony, this exhumation “renew[ed] their tears,” and they felt “afresh the grief they had on the day of the funeral.”5 This part of the process was so moving to even the Jesuit outsiders who were present that Le Jeune noted, “I do not think one could see in the world a more vivid picture or more perfect representation of what man is.”6
Having retrieved the bodies of their deceased, the Wendat bore them to the site of the ceremony. Once there, the bodies, no matter how long they’d been entombed, were stripped of their flesh. Then, “the bones having been well cleaned, they put them partly into bags, partly into fur robes, loaded them on their shoulders, and covered these packages with another beautiful hanging robe.”7 These packages were then put on display in a large scaffolding, thus giving the living a little longer to honor and revere their lost loved ones. Later in the evening, these bundles were placed into a large communal grave, along with everyday objects the dead could use in the afterlife. As the large, communal ossuary was then covered, the onlookers wailed and sang, presumably both out of grief of their loss and the joy of knowing their loved ones had gone to the village of the dead where they could once again live as they had on this earth.8
It is a common assertion, and one that I believe myself, that these feasts had not only a religious aspect to them, but a political aspect. As the Wendat were organized into a confederacy of villages and clans, rather than a centralized nation, these feasts helped to reaffirm their commitment to one-another, as well as any other foreign nations they invited to take part.
And, one last thing. Despite how often Europeans found the practices of the people of the Americas “savage” or “barbarous,” the Jesuits actually found the Feast of the Dead fascinating. Ancestor worship, and the presence of the dead in everyday life, was so prevalent in the Early Modern world, no matter which continent or region you lived in, that it seemed only natural. To end this post, I’d like to give a quote from Paul Le Jeune, showing his reaction to the Feast of the Dead, which, I think, gives evidence to the notion that history is far more complication than we could ever imagine:
“It is true that in France our Cemeteries preach powerfully, and that all those piled up one upon another without discrimination – those of the poor with those of the rich, those of the mean with those of the great – are so many voices continually proclaiming to us the thought of death, the vanity of the things of this world, and contempt for the present life: but it seems to me that what our Savages do on this occasion touches us still more, and makes us see more closely and apprehend more sensibly our wretched state.”9
- Paul Le Jeune, “Of the Order of the Hurons Observe in their Councils,” The Jesuits Relations Vol. 10, 260 (http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_10.html).
- JR Vol. 10, 285.
- JR Vol. 10, 286.
- JR Vol. 10, 280.
- JR Vol. 10, 281.
- JR Vol. 10, 284-285.
- JR Vol. 10, 282.