I’m in Philadelphia for some Easter weekend fun, but I thought it was too much of a coincidence with all of you Christians eager to eat the flesh and drink the blood of your Lord Jesus Christ to let pass the recent publication of Erik Seeman’s The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). From the book jacket:
“Two thousand Wendat (Huron) Indians stood on the edge of an enormous burial pit… they held in their arms the bones of roughly seven hundred deceased friends and family members. The Wendats had lovingly scraped and cleaned the bones of the corpses that had decomposed on the scaffolds. They awaited only the signal from the master of the ritual to place the bones in the pit. This was the great Feast of the Dead.”
Witnesses to these Wendat burial rituals were European colonists, French Jesuit missionaries in particular. Rather than being horrified by these unfamiliar native practices, Europeans recognized the parallels between them and their own understanding of death and human remains. Both groups believed that deceased souls traveled to the afterlife; both believed that elaborate mortuary rituals ensured the safe transit of the soul to the supernatural realm; and both believed in the power of human bones.
Appreciating each other’s funerary practices allowed the Wendats and French colonists to find common ground where there seemingly would be none. Erik R. Seeman analyzes these encounters, using the Feast of the Dead as a metaphor for broader Indian-European relations in North America. His compelling narrative gives undergraduate students of early America and the Atlantic World a revealing glimpse into this fascinating — and surprising — meeting of cultures.
Seeman is also the author of Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). I’m looking forward to a leisurely read of it this summer–I really liked his article in the Journal of American History from 2001, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the publication of his book, which features chapters on a number of different early American mortuary rituals from Catholic New France and its Indian missions, through protestant New England and the early English Chesapeake, to African American and Jewish rites and a chapter on “burial and condolence” in the Seven Years’ War. Yum!
I hope you have a sacralicious holiday, whatever it is that you might celebrate about this time of the year. (Famille Historiann will probably be looking for some tasty dim sum on Sunday morning.) I’m off to get the official tour of Independence Hall, as it’s been 25 years since I took the tour for the first time. (It’s interesting to see the post-9/11/2001 changes around Independence Hall, which now has a security check, and last night there was a guard standing sentry out front at 11 p.m.–I don’t recall that ever having been the case, but maybe some of you locals and/or fellow grads of Ben Franklin U. can catch me up on this.) And finally, I guess I’ll have to take the Betsy Ross House tour this time, too!