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On Funeral Ceremonies

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

There is perhaps no part of the history of human manners more singular than that which regards the funeral rites and memorials of barbarous and pagan nations Amidst the vast diversity which here crowd upon our observation, there are several customs which seem reasonably traceable to those natural emotions and wishes which are excited by death in the minds of the survivors ; to the poignancy of sorrow, and the warmth of affection ; some owe their origin to an extravagant admiration of departed worth ; in others we mark the strong influence of religious prejudice or philosophical theory, or perhaps the wanderings of imagination in the fields of poetical allegory. Sometimes also they furnish us with striking coincidences in opinion and practice between the most remote nations, which are either so general as to mark the wide operation of certain principles and passions, or so minute as to illustrate the original identity of nations, and the uniform preservation of ancient tradition. Lastly, there are some customs of this class so peculiar and extravagant, that-it is extremely difficult to reduce them to any more satisfactory causes than man's vain and wanton caprice, or the senseless corruptions of rustic ignorance.

My present purpose is to throw into one view a few of the more remarkable of these phenomena.

(1) It is well known that the ancient Greeks and Romans attached the highest importance to the due performance of the obsequies of their departed friends, and that the souls of the unburied were believed to wander for the space of an hundred years upon the disconsolate banks of the Styx. The Hindoos also (who speak of a river of fire to be crossed by the disembodied spirit, and are accustomed to place a piece of money in the mouth of the corpse) declare that the souls of those who remain unburied wander as evil deities through the earth. In conformity with such prejudices, where the exequies could not be strictly performed, certain ceremonies by way of substitution were allowed. It is notorious, from the testimony of Horace and other writers, that three handfuls of soft earth thrown upon the body were considered effectual for this purpose ; and we know that Andromache, in Virgil, raised an empty sepulchre to the memory of Hector. But similar customs are also observed in the remote kingdom of Tonquin. Father Marini * relates that, " when any friend is dead, and his body is nowhere to be found, they write his name on a piece of board, and perform the same funeral solemnities to that representation of him, as if it were his real corpse."

In the third Æneid, v. 67, 68, particular ceremonies are specified, by which the souls of the dead were invited to the sepulchres, and made, as it were, inhabitants of them, " animamque sepulchro condimus." So in Ausonius, " voce ciere animas funeris instar habet." Now it is curious that, according to Father Tissanier's t account of Tonquin, a king of that country having made choice of a magnificent house for the reception of his father's soul, formally purchased it, and then after setting forth a rich repast, with four profound bows, he requested the spirit to accept of his new habitation. Accordingly, a statue, representing the soul, upon which the King's name was written, was conveyed thither with great pomp, and to conclude the ceremony, this palace, with all its costly furniture, was set fire to, and consumed. Another traveller relates, that the Japanese, upon a yearly festival, visit the tombs, where they have familiar intercourse with the dead, whom they invite to follow them back to the city. To this the souls consent, but, after two days' sojourn among the living, they are driven back to the tombs by a great shower of stones ; for any further continuance of their visit would be esteemed highly unfortunate. In these practices we may readily trace a belief in the immortality and immateriality of the human soul, mingled with a confused notion of its partiality to the body, and its subserviency to human influence.

Another instance of extraordinary care bestowed upon the rites of burial may be found in the custom prevalent both in ancient Greece and modern Scotland, of preparing the shroud of a sick or aged person even long before the approach of death. Although this anxiety may not be very easily accounted for upon principles of reason, it may be acknowledged as the natural result of the affection of ignorant persons, attaching identity to the body instead of the soul. Hence also the custom common among pagan nations, of placing food beside the tombs of the deceased, which was in some cases carried so far, that provisions were let down by a pipe into the grave, and sometimes were even applied to the mouth of the dead person. An Ethiopian nation, according to Herodotus, preserved the bodies of their relations enclosed in coffins made of a sort of glass.

Strangely mingled with these marks of affection, are symptoms of a superstitious dread of the relics of the departed. The touch of a corpse was, and is now in many parts of the world, thought to impart a pollution which much time and ceremony alone could cleanse. The Kings of some countries were not allowed even to behold one, and the Pontifex Maximus of Rome was, according to Seneca,* laid under the same restraint. The Hindoos, we are assured, consider carcasses as evil deities, and the bodies of those who die under an unfortunate constellation are carried out of the house, not by the door, but through a hole made in the wall, and the house is deserted for a considerable time. This last peculiar custom is, according to Kolbens, general among the Hottentots, who carry out a corpse through a hole in the back of the hut, for they imagine, he adds, that the dead are mischievously inclined to injure the cattle confined in the midst of the village. Lastly, the Kamschadales frequently desert the hut in which a relation has breathed his last, and carefully throw away all the clothes which he used in life.

When we consider the splendid obsequies and expensive mausolea so common in most ages and countries, the solicitude so generally manifested to ensure the rites of burial, and the frequent practice of deifying the departed, it may appear abstractly improbable that any nations are to be found by whom these marks of respect are neglected ; yet instances of such disrespect are discoverable even in civilized regions. In Mexico, Mr. Bullock* observed no memorials of the dead ; neither monuments nor inscriptions appear to be in use. In Switzer-land also, though funerals are conducted with becoming solemnity, no service is read over the grave. Among ruder nations may be perceived marks of a studied and even contemptuous disrespect. The ancient Troglodyte, as Diodorus relates, were in the habit of covering the bodies of their relations with a shower of stones, accompanying this unceremonious treatment with peals of laughter. Whether this point may be illustrated by the conduct of that people who were said to lament at every birth, and to rejoice at funerals, from an opinion of the misery of human life, it is difficult to say. The classical writer above cited, speaks also of an Ethiopian tribe who abandon their dead upon the coast, below low-water mark, from the express desire that they may become food for fishes. The inhabitants of Radack, an island in the Pacific Ocean, act, according to Captain Kotzebue, in a similar manner. Yet more strange is the usage of the Kamschadales, who regularly, we are told, deliver up their dead as food for dogs, and this not from intentional neglect, but because they think it a means of procuring fine dogs for their spirits in the other world, and that the evil powers, who are the authors of death, may be satisfied with seeing the bodies abandoned without the houses.

The Gaures or Guebres of the East are well known to abandon the remains of their friends, in uncovered enclosures, to the birds which live upon carrion. The same practice prevails in Tibet, where these receptacles have covered passages below to admit the beasts of prey : some bodies are thrown into a river, but burial is quite unknown. The inhabitants of the parts near the Pontus Euxinus were, we are told, in ancient times so monstrous, as to devour the bodies of their deceased parents ; and the Balearic islanders used to cut them to pieces, and place the mutilated fragments in earthen pots.

It were endless, however, to enumerate the extravagancies with which the funeral rites of barbarous nations are replete.

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