American Indian Burial Types: Box Graves


Under this head may be placed those examples furnished by certain tribes on the northwest coast who used as receptacles for the dead wonderfully carved, large wooden chests, these being supported upon a low platform or resting on the ground. In shape they resemble a small house with an angular roof, and each one has an opening through which food may be passed to the corpse.
Some of the tribes formerly living in New York used boxes much resembling those spoken of, and the Creeks, Choctaws, and Cherokees did the same.
Capt. J. H. Gageby, United States Army, furnishes the following relating to the Creeks in Indian Territory.
*** are buried on the surface, in a box or a substitute made of branches of trees, covered with small branches, leaves, and earth. I have seen several of their graves, which after a few weeks had become uncovered and the remains exposed to view. I saw in one Creek grave (a child’s) a small sum of silver, in another (adult male) some implements of warfare, bow and arrows. They are all interred with the feet of the corpse to the east. In the mourning ceremonies of the Creeks the nearer relatives smeared their hair and faces with a composition made of grease and wood ashes, and would remain in that condition for several days, and probably a month.
Josiah Priest62 gives an account of the burial repositories of a tribe of Pacific coast Indians living on the Talomeco River, Oregon. The writer believes it to be entirely unreliable and gives it place as an example of credulity shown by many writers and readers.
The corpses of the Caciques were so well embalmed that there was no bad smell, they were deposited in large wooden coffins, well constructed, and placed upon benches two feet from the ground. In smaller coffins, and in baskets, the Spaniards found the clothes of the deceased men and women, and so many pearls that they distributed them among the officers and soldiers by handsfulls.
In Bancroft63 may be found the following account of the burial boxes of the Esquimaux.
The Eskimos do not as a rule bury their dead, but double the body up and place it on the side in a plank box which is elevated three or four feet from the ground and supported by four posts. The grave-box is often covered with painted figures of 156birds, fishes and animals. Sometimes it is wrapped in skins placed upon an elevated frame and covered with planks or trunks of trees so as to protect it from wild beasts. Upon the frame, or in the grave box are deposited the arms, clothing, and sometimes the domestic utensils of the deceased. Frequent mention is made by travelers of burial places where the bodies lie exposed with their heads placed towards the north.
Frederic Whymper describes the burial boxes of the Kalosh of that Territory.
Their grave boxes or tombs are interesting. They contain only the ashes of the dead. These people invariably burn the deceased. On one of the boxes I saw a number of faces painted, long tresses of human hair depending therefrom. Each head represented a victim of the (happily) deceased one’s ferocity. In his day he was doubtless more esteemed than if he had never harmed a fly. All their graves are much ornamented with carved and painted faces and other devices.
W. H. Dall, well known as one of the most experienced and careful of American Ethnologic observers, describes the burial boxes of the Innuits of Unalaklik, Innuits of Yuka, and Ingaliks of Ulukuk as follows: Figs. 13 and 14 are after his illustrations in the volume noted.

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Fig. 13.—Innuit Grave.
The usual fashion is to place the body doubled up on its side in a box of plank hewed out of spruce logs and about four feet long. This is elevated several feet above the ground on four posts which project above the coffin or box. The sides are often painted with red chalk in figures of fur animals, birds, and fishes. According to the 157wealth of the dead man, a number of articles which belonged to him are attached to the coffin or strewed around it; some of them have kyaks, bows and arrows, hunting implements, snow-shoes, or even kettles, around the grave or fastened to it; and almost invariably the wooden dish, or “kantág,” from which the deceased was accustomed to eat, is hung on one of the posts.

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Fig. 14.—Ingalik grave.
The dead are enclosed above ground in a box in the manner previously described. The annexed sketch shows the form of the sarcophagus, which, in this case, is ornamented with snow-shoes, a reel for seal-lines, a fishing-rod, and a wooden dish or kantág. The latter is found with every grave, and usually one is placed in the box with the body. Sometimes a part of the property of the dead person is placed in the coffin or about it; occasionally the whole is thus disposed of. Generally the furs, possessions, and clothing (except such as has been worn) are divided among the nearer relatives of the dead, or remain in possession of his family if he has one; such clothing, household utensils, and weapons as the deceased had in daily use are almost invariably enclosed in his coffin. If there are many deaths about the same time, or an epidemic occurs, everything belonging to the dead is destroyed. The house in which a death occurs is always deserted and usually destroyed. In order to avoid this, it is not uncommon to take the sick person out of the house and put him in a tent to die. A woman’s coffin may be known by the kettles and other feminine utensils about it. There is no distinction between the sexes in method of burial. On the outside of the coffin, figures are usually drawn in red ochre. Figures of fur animals usually indicate that the dead person was a good trapper; if seal or deer skin, his proficiency as a hunter; representation of parkies that he was wealthy; the manner of his death is also occasionally indicated. For four days after a death the women in the village do no sewing; for five days the men do not cut wood with an axe. The relatives of the dead must not seek birds’ eggs on the overhanging cliffs for a year, or their feet will slip from under them and they will be dashed to pieces. No mourning is worn or indicated, except by cutting the hair. Women sit and watch the body, chanting a 158mournful refrain until he is interred. They seldom suspect that others have brought the death about by shamánism, as the Indians almost invariably do.
At the end of a year from the death, a festival is given, presents are made to those who assisted in making the coffin, and the period of mourning is over. Their grief seldom seems deep but they indulge for a long time in wailing for the dead at intervals. I have seen several women who refused to take a second husband, and had remained single in spite of repeated offers for many years.