Mourning of Early Inhabitants

A 1640 sign from the Dutch city of Amsterdam advertising Aanspreecker services. In Schenectady the church sexton did this service.

A 1640 sign from the Dutch city of Amsterdam advertising Aanspreecker services. In Schenectady the church sexton did this service.

“I was at a great Schechems funeral at fort Hunter, he was interred in fine Indian Shoes, Stockings, &.C. the Indians behaved vastly decent, & shewed Sincere Grief. formerly they used to have their Guns, Axes, &.C. put in the Ground with them, immagining they were to hunt in the Other Country to the East (meaning the other World) & be merry.

                                                                                               Warren Johnson 1760-1761 

During the 17th century, the Iroquois buried their dead with tools and other goods they could use in the after life. Men took weapons, tools, pipes and spiritual items like beads and effigies. Women took pots of food, tools, ornamental and personal possessions, while parents lovingly buried their children with trade goods like glass and beads.  Over time European goods became more frequent and iron and brass in among grave goods increased rapidly during the first half of the century.


When in mourning, the Iroquois cut their hair, smeared their face with dirt, and entered a ten-day period of deep mourning in which they neglected their social duties.  Over the course of a year, the mourners took on more duties, but remained unkempt and exempt from many social amenities.  As a way of cooping with the lose of a loved one, the Iroquois transferred the name and duties of the deceased to another. Those of high social status replaced someone from the same lineage, clan or village, but those lower on the social scale, replacements came from captives.  War parties assembled for the specific purpose of taking prisoners to replace the dead.  The mourning family chose to accept the replacement or execute them in a religious ceremony.


*The Iroquois buried their dead in a circular or oval pit sitting in a flexed position and facing west. The grave would be lined with furs, skins, bark or grass and covered with bark or fieldstone with a layer of dirt. When European-made tools became more frequent palisades were built around the grave and painted white, red and black. By the middle to late 18th century, the Iroquois began using wooden coffins instead of skins and bark.


“[The Dutch] have another custom differing from other Nations. They feast freely at the Funeral of any Friend, to which I have been often invited and sometimes a Guest…. The Dutch eat and drink very plentifully at the Feasts, but I do not remember any Musick or Minstrels…. In all these Feasts I observ’d they sit Men and Women intermixt, and not as our English do Women and Men by themselves apart.”

                                                         Charles Wooley, New York City, 1678-80


Among the early Dutch, the family of the deceased hired an Aanspreecker or inviter to go to the homes of friends and relatives to invite them to the funeral.  Closed shutters signified a state of mourning and mirrors were covered or turned to the wall.  A coin placed in the hand of the corpse paid for the crossing into the land of the dead.  Family prepared the body in the home and it remained there until burial, at which time ten to twelve people carried the coffin on a bier covered by a black velvet cloth called a pall.  A party at the home of the deceased greeted mourners when they returned from the cemetery.

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