The Funeral Fire

: Folk-lore And Legends: North American Indian

For several nights after the interment of a Chippewa a fire is kept

burning upon the grave. This fire is lit in the evening, and carefully

supplied with small sticks of dry wood, to keep up a bright but small

fire. It is kept burning for several hours, generally until the usual

hour of retiring to rest, and then suffered to go out. The fire is

renewed for four nights, and sometimes for longer. The person who

performs t
is pious office is generally a near relative of the

deceased, or one who has been long intimate with him. The following

tale is related as showing the origin of the custom.

A small war party of Chippewas encountered their enemies upon an open

plain, where a severe battle was fought. Their leader was a brave and

distinguished warrior, but he never acted with greater bravery, or

more distinguished himself by personal prowess, than on this occasion.

After turning the tide of battle against his enemies, while shouting

for victory, he received an arrow in his breast, and fell upon the

plain. No warrior thus killed is ever buried, and according to

ancient custom, the chief was placed in a sitting posture upon the

field, his back supported by a tree, and his face turned towards the

direction in which his enemies had fled. His headdress and equipment

were accurately adjusted as if he were living, and his bow leaned

against his shoulder. In this posture his companions left him. That he

was dead appeared evident to all, but a strange thing had happened.

Although deprived of speech and motion, the chief heard distinctly all

that was said by his friends. He heard them lament his death without

having the power to contradict it, and he felt their touch as they

adjusted his posture, without having the power to reciprocate it. His

anguish, when he felt himself thus abandoned, was extreme, and his

wish to follow his friends on their return home so completely filled

his mind, as he saw them one after another take leave of him and

depart, that with a terrible effort he arose and followed them. His

form, however, was invisible to them, and this aroused in him

surprise, disappointment, and rage, which by turns took possession of

him. He followed their track, however, with great diligence. Wherever

they went he went, when they walked he walked, when they ran he ran,

when they encamped he stopped with them, when they slept he slept,

when they awoke he awoke. In short, he mingled in all their labours

and toils, but he was excluded from all their sources of refreshment,

except that of sleeping, and from the pleasures of participating in

their conversation, for all that he said received no notice.

"Is it possible," he cried, "that you do not see me, that you do not

hear me, that you do not understand me? Will you suffer me to bleed to

death without offering to stanch my wounds? Will you permit me to

starve while you eat around me? Have those whom I have so often led to

war so soon forgotten me? Is there no one who recollects me, or who

will offer me a morsel of food in my distress?"

Thus he continued to upbraid his friends at every stage of the

journey, but no one seemed to hear his words. If his voice was heard

at all, it was mistaken for the rustling of the leaves in the wind.

At length the returning party reached their village, and their women

and children came out, according to custom, to welcome their return

and proclaim their praises.

"Kumaudjeewug! Kumaudjeewug! Kumaudjeewug! they have met, fought, and

conquered!" was shouted by every mouth, and the words resounded

through the most distant parts of the village. Those who had lost

friends came eagerly to inquire their fate, and to know whether they

had died like men. The aged father consoled himself for the loss of

his son with the reflection that he had fallen manfully, and the widow

half forgot her sorrow amid the praises that were uttered of the

bravery of her husband. The hearts of the youths glowed with martial

ardour as they heard these flattering praises, and the children joined

in the shouts, of which they scarcely knew the meaning. Amidst all

this uproar and bustle no one seemed conscious of the presence of the

warrior-chief. He heard many inquiries made respecting his fate. He

heard his companions tell how he had fought, conquered, and fallen,

pierced by an arrow through his breast, and how he had been left

behind among the slain on the field of battle.

"It is not true," declared the angry chief, "that I was killed and

left upon the field! I am here. I live; I move; see me; touch me. I

shall again raise my spear in battle, and take my place in the feast."

Nobody, however, seemed conscious of his presence, and his voice was

mistaken for the whispering of the wind.

He now walked to his own lodge, and there he found his wife tearing

her hair and lamenting over his fate. He endeavoured to undeceive her,

but she, like the others, appeared to be insensible of his presence,

and not to hear his voice. She sat in a despairing manner, with her

head reclining on her hands. The chief asked her to bind up his

wounds, but she made no reply. He placed his mouth close to her ear

and shouted--

"I am hungry, give me some food!"

The wife thought she heard a buzzing in her ear, and remarked it to

one who sat by. The enraged husband now summoning all his strength,

struck her a blow on the forehead. His wife raised her hand to her

head, and said to her friend--

"I feel a slight shooting pain in my head."

Foiled thus in every attempt to make himself known, the warrior-chief

began to reflect upon what he had heard in his youth, to the effect

that the spirit was sometimes permitted to leave the body and wander

about. He concluded that possibly his body might have remained upon

the field of battle, while his spirit only accompanied his returning

friends. He determined to return to the field, although it was four

days' journey away. He accordingly set out upon his way. For three

days he pursued his way without meeting anything uncommon; but on the

fourth, towards evening, as he came to the skirts of the battlefield,

he saw a fire in the path before him. He walked to one side to avoid

stepping into it, but the fire also changed its position, and was

still before him. He then went in another direction, but the

mysterious fire still crossed his path, and seemed to bar his entrance

to the scene of the conflict. In short, whichever way he took, the

fire was still before him,--no expedient seemed to avail him.

"Thou demon!" he exclaimed at length, "why dost thou bar my approach

to the field of battle? Knowest thou not that I am a spirit also, and

that I seek again to enter my body? Dost thou presume that I shall

return without effecting my object? Know that I have never been

defeated by the enemies of my nation, and will not be defeated by


So saying, he made a sudden effort and jumped through the flame. No

sooner had he done so than he found himself sitting on the ground,

with his back supported by a tree, his bow leaning against his

shoulder, all his warlike dress and arms upon his body, just as they

had been left by his friends on the day of battle. Looking up he

beheld a large canicu, or war eagle, sitting in the tree above his

head. He immediately recognised this bird to be the same as he had

once dreamt of in his youth--the one he had chosen as his guardian

spirit, or personal manito. This eagle had carefully watched his body

and prevented other ravenous birds from touching it.

The chief got up and stood upon his feet, but he felt himself weak and

much exhausted. The blood upon his wound had stanched itself, and he

now bound it up. He possessed a knowledge of such roots as have

healing properties, and these he carefully sought in the woods. Having

found some, he pounded some of them between stones and applied them

externally. Others he chewed and swallowed. In a short time he found

himself so much recovered as to be able to commence his journey, but

he suffered greatly from hunger, not seeing any large animals that he

might kill. However, he succeeded in killing some small birds with his

bow and arrow, and these he roasted before a fire at night.

In this way he sustained himself until he came to a river that

separated his wife and friends from him. He stood upon the bank and

gave that peculiar whoop which is a signal of the return of a friend.

The sound was immediately heard, and a canoe was despatched to bring

him over, and in a short time, amidst the shouts of his friends and

relations, who thronged from every side to see the arrival, the

warrior-chief was landed.

When the first wild bursts of wonder and joy had subsided, and some

degree of quiet had been restored to the village, he related to his

people the account of his adventures. He concluded his narrative by

telling them that it is pleasing to the spirit of a deceased person to

have a fire built upon the grave for four nights after his burial;

that it is four days' journey to the land appointed for the residence

of the spirits; that in its journey thither the spirit stands in need

of a fire every night at the place of its encampment; and that if the

friends kindle this fire upon the spot where the body is laid, the

spirit has the benefit of its light and warmth on its path, while if

the friends neglect to do this, the spirit is subjected to the irksome

task of making its own fire each night.