Campus News

Historian to speak on ‘Feast of the Dead’


Published September 13, 2012

This 18th-century print from Granger Prints depicts the Huron Feast of the Dead. Click on the image to see a larger version.

A free public talk on Sept. 19 by Erik Seeman, UB professor of history, will focus on The Feast of the Dead, a fascinating and ancient Huron ritual, detailed in its preparation, loving in its performance and troubling for non-Indian witnesses to behold.

The talk will take place at 7 p.m. in the Cummings Room, Buffalo Museum of Science, 1020 Humboldt Parkway, Buffalo; it is sponsored by the Houghton Chapter of the New York State Archaeological Association.

Seeman is the author of “The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), a compelling read, even for those completely unfamiliar with the subject matter. The book reflects his deep and detailed understanding of the Huron (also called the Wendat) people of present-day Ontario: their history, customs, changing political and trading relationships, and social practices.

The Feast of the Dead was a solemn funerary practice of the Huron which, among other things, served to unite their confederacy around the communal treatment of their deeply revered dead.

Seeman says the ritual was one of enormous power, not only for the Hurons, but for the French Catholic colonists among them who witnessed the ceremonies and described them for posterity.

“Both groups had surprisingly similar attitudes toward death, the afterlife and human remains,” Seeman says, “and their death practices, which treated the body with great reverence, helped them to apprehend and respect one another. It also has implications for other European and American encounters with indigenous peoples.”

He says that upon the death of one of their group, Huron villagers ceremonially prepared and wrapped the corpse and placed it on a scaffold in the open air, where it was permitted to decay.

Every 10 years or so, Hurons in villages throughout the confederacy would lower the remains, including recent decaying corpses, from their resting places, scrape the remaining (and sometimes rotting) flesh from their bones, and carefully clean and rewrap them amidst much lamentation.

Then, from every corner of the Huron nation, villagers took to the forest trails in massive processions, bearing their wrapped bones, recent corpses and funerary gifts.

With sadness and mournful cries, they converged by the hundreds upon the village where a communal reinterment—The Feast of the Dead—took place. Witnesses describe this ceremony as very organized, ritualistic and powerful to behold. It involved carefully arranged displays of bones, corpses and a vast number of grave goods, and a 30-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep pit lined with beaver pelts “beyond counting.”

The Hurons socialized for some time and then, at the appointed time and with what witness called the “wildest excitement and the uproar of many hundreds of voices,” they rose up to place their collected bodily remains into the pit, along with copper pots, more pelts, cups, clay pipes, clay beads and other gifts.

Seeman says that what we have learned about The Feast of the Dead through archaeology, anthropology, literature and historical analysis helps explain the changing political and economic realities in which the Huron-Wendat lived, as well as their geographic movements and social behavior.

For instance, he points out that by the 17th century, the massive number of grave gifts placed into the ossuary after the dead indicates the Hurons’ material devotion to the departed souls, as well as their lucrative economic relationship with the French.

In any case, he says the ritual itself demonstrates the enormous spiritual power of physical remains, and because it also speaks to their evolving relationship with the French colonists, Seeman says, “It serves as a metaphor for broader Indian-European relations in North America.”