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Or, Five Years of Church Work among Ojibway Indians and Lumbermen, resident upon that Island or in its Vicinity.

By Harold Nelson Burden

London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., 1895.

Chapter XIX. An Indian Funeral

One evening during the summer the missionary arrived at an Indian village and was disappointed to find that the majority of its inhabitants were away from home. However, on the shore near the spot where he had moored his boat, he found an Indian called Big John, who had encamped there with his family. Big John belonged to a neighbouring village and was one of the missionary's flock, so Mr. Frost was glad to go and speak to him and his wife.

He enquired of them after the health of a little child who had been very ill, and whom the missionary had lately been visiting. Big John said that the child had died the previous day, and that he had been helping to make the coffin and assisting in the preparations for the funeral, which was to take place on the morrow. "It is good that you came," he continued, "or otherwise we should have had no black coat to perform the rites and prayers of burial." John then helped the missionary to set up his tent, and brought his blankets and rugs from the boat.

The missionary then set forth to visit his bereaved friends, who lived at some little distance from the [131/132] shore. He found them in their cabin, intently watching the dead child in its coffin. The corpse was beautifully dressed, and had been laid out with great care by the fond parents, who had probably spent all their savings on the decoration of their dear child's body. The missionary stayed with them for some little time and made arrangements for the customary service of song in the evening, promising to come and help with the singing, and to speak some words of instruction and consolation.

The Indians are accustomed to sit up with their bereaved friends on the night preceding a funeral, passing the time in prayer and singing hymns. It was to one of these gatherings that the missionary promised to return. In the meantime the chief and his family arrived, and also two or three others, some from considerable distances, and among them some of the relations of the child. At the appointed time they all assembled and held a very lengthy meeting. About twenty hymns were sung at intervals, and Mr. Frost filled up these intervals by reading passages from the Bible which speak of the Christian's hope in the resurrection and belief in a future life, afterwards explaining these truths and consoling the weeping parents. It was midnight when he left his friends and sought rest in his own tent.

At nine o'clock on the following morning, the first part of the funeral service was held in the little church, and was attended by all the inhabitants of [132/133] the village, save those who were engaged in the distant camps. The service over, they repaired to the graveyard, which was at some distance from the church. The parents of the child and some friends accompanied the little coffin in a boat, the missionary and some others walking through the woods, arriving soon after the former had reached the graveyard. Now Indians are very deliberate in all their movements, and especially so at funerals, so when the missionary arrived at the graveyard he found no grave had been dug; only a few preparations had been made for commencing it.

As this would be a matter of time, the Chief, fearing that Mr. Frost would find it very wearisome to stand about while the grave was being dug, suggested that he should take a gun and amuse himself by shooting partridges. There were six stalwart Indians engaged to dig the little grave, which was only about three feet long, and the soil was sandy and soft, but they worked very slowly. Again the missionary was advised to amuse himself with shooting, but he said he would stay with them and help dig, lest darkness should overtake them before the grave was completed.

When they had reached to a depth of three feet, Big John undertook to dig, but he could not move to work. After a few helpless and hopeless efforts he withdrew from the grave, and another man of slighter build jumped in and worked for a time. Then another took his place, and several [133/134] laboured at it before a depth of five feet was reached.

At last the work was done, but then another difficulty arose. The shell--a rough kind of case which is placed in the grave and into which the coffin is lowered--was not yet made; and, worse still, no one had remembered to bring a saw. But an Indian does not often find himself in such a fix that he does not know how to extricate himself. So on the present occasion some one suggested that an axe would do to cut off some lengths of boarding for the shell. So the axe was tried and found to answer.

Then it was discovered that there were no nails for fastening the boards together. The missionary felt in his pockets and found two nails, and an Indian produced three more. The chief thought that with care these might be made to do, and very soon the shell was finished and fitted into the grave.

While the men had thus been engaged in working at the grave the women had lighted a fire some distance away and were cooking supper, and just as the proceedings at the grave had arrived at the stage of completion, the announcement was made that supper was ready.

In vain did the missionary entreat that the funeral should first be finished before supper was eaten. But the Indians were obdurate, and contended that as everything was cooked and ready, it would be better to have supper first, the dead, they said, "were in no hurry."

[135] As there was no shaking their resolution the missionary had to give away, and he followed the Indians to the place where supper had been prepared. There were many kinds of vegetables, fish, meat, and a dish called "Indian Choke Dog," but perhaps the missionary would have been better pleased if he had been provided with a spoon or fork, or even a plate, for the Indians had forgotten to bring these necessary articles. Yet this was a funeral, not a picnic, and all the time the little coffin had been lying in the boat, thither the Indians now went.

The missionary put on his surplice, and a procession was formed to the grave. After the service a hymn was sung and the missionary gave a short address, telling them how David, when he was bereaved, had said "I shall go to Him, but He shall not return to me." The parents thanked him warmly and said they were glad he had come in time to give their dear child the privilege of Christian burial. The funeral had occupied the whole of the long summer's day. When they reached the village

Nox erat, et coelo fulgebat luna sereno
Inter minora sidera. Hor. Epod. XV.

flooding with her passionless radiance the dwellings of the living and the dead.

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