Death in the New World

Through a series of engrossing narratives, Death in the New World uses the customs surrounding death among Indians, Africans, and Europeans as a lens through which to examine the cross-cultural interactions in North America and the Caribbean in the three centuries following Columbus.

Death in the New World
Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800

Erik R. Seeman

2010 | 384 pages | Cloth $45.00 | Paper $24.95
American History
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Ways of Dying, Ways of Living
Chapter 1. Old Worlds of Death
Chapter 2. First Encounters
Chapter 3. Burial and Disinterment in the Chesapeake
Chapter 4. Holy Bones and Beautiful Deaths in New France
Chapter 5. Grave Missions: Christianizing Death in New England
Chapter 6. Across the Waters: African American Deathways
Chapter 7. Crossing Boundaries, Keeping Faith: Jewish Deathways
Chapter 8. Burial and Condolence in the Seven Years' War
Conclusion: Ways of Living, Ways of Dying


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Ways of Dying, Ways of Living

Imagine that you travel to a place you've never been before. Maybe it's not too far off the beaten track, like eastern Kentucky. Maybe it's a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Borneo. What is the first thing you want to know about the locals? For me, it's about food and drink. What do these people eat with friends after a hard day at work? What do they drink when they want to celebrate? For you, perhaps the first thing you want to learn about is their art, or their sports, or their music.

Five hundred years ago, most people would have simply asked, "How do they bury their dead?"

Today we have, with a few exceptions, lost this curiosity about outsiders' ways of dying, or deathways, a more expansive term I prefer that includes deathbed scenes, corpse preparation, burial practices, funerals, mourning, and commemoration. But for thousands of years, when people encountered an unfamiliar society they wanted to learn about the strangers' deathways. People recognized that an excellent technique for understanding a society's ways of living was to observe its ways of dying. Through deathways they discerned clues about how unfamiliar peoples conceptualized the afterlife and the supernatural, how they honored elites, what they considered to be the proper relations between parents and children, and many other crucial beliefs and practices.

Because all humans die, but all human societies practice varying deathways, observers of the unfamiliar oscillate between two kinds of reactions: the inclusive ("they're not so different after all") and the exclusive ("now that's strange"). Inclusive reactions embrace a universalistic perspective, recognizing that different societies are united in at least the broadest sense by the imperative to dispose of corpses in a meaningful way. By contrast, exclusive reactions are dismissive of or even hostile toward the different—and, to the observer, sometimes repulsive—practices of the outsiders.

Given what we know about European ethnocentrism in more recent times, it may be surprising that for centuries Western ethnographers and travel writers tended toward the inclusive in their observations of foreign deathways. In what is widely considered the first Western historical writing, the fifth-century B.C.E. Histories by Herodotus, the author almost always introduces non-Athenians with their deathways front and center. More than a dozen times in the Histories, Herodotus digresses from his narrative to tell the reader about the mortuary customs of peoples from Greece to the Balkans to the edge of the known world. Some of his descriptions provide useful bits of information (the Babylonians embalm their dead with honey). Others introduce practices one might expect to cause revulsion (the Issedonians beyond the Caspian Sea chop up a dead man, mix him with a variety of other meats, and enjoy the mixed grill at a "special meal"). But either way, Herodotus's tone is unruffled and nonjudgmental: inclusive, in the sense of including the foreigners in the medley of practices that defines a common humanity. The effect of the whole, as the historian Anthony Grafton puts it, "made plain that no civilization could claim universal validity."

Likewise, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, one of the most popular books in late medieval and early modern Europe, introduced readers to the (alleged) deathways of peoples across Europe, Asia, and Africa. "Mandeville" was not a real fourteenth-century knight; his words were penned by an unknown author who based his accounts on an amalgam of earlier travel writers, his own observations, and sheer fantasy. But for centuries readers enjoyed The Travels for what they took to be an authentic description of encounters with foreigners. In the spirit of Herodotus, Mandeville not only believed that deathways were the key to understanding unfamiliar societies; he also refrained from criticizing other peoples for their mortuary customs. The residents of the isle of Dondun, imagined to be somewhere in the Indian Ocean, were said to suffocate the dying to put them out their misery. Euthanasia accomplished, they feasted on the flesh of the dead. "All those that be of his kin or pretend them to be friends," wrote Mandeville, "and they come not to that feast, they be reproved for evermore and shamed, and make great dole, for never after shall they be holden as friends." Not only did the author avoid negative comment on anthropophagy but he suggested to readers—or at least without comment passed along the suggestion—that those who skipped the cannibalistic feast were the ones deserving criticism.

Not all writers were as unprejudiced as Herodotus and Mandeville, who tended toward the inclusive in their descriptions of all foreign customs, not just deathways. Other European travelers—such as the thirteenth-century friar Johannes de Plano Carpini, who wrote of the "strange or rather miserable" deathways of non-Christians—were not so generous in their assessment of outsiders. Some of the individuals who appear in this book, especially European missionaries, followed Carpini's lead and criticized unfamiliar deathways, an intellectual move that could lead to the belief that the outsiders were inferior in a variety of ways. But even those who had exclusive reactions were at the very least curious about the mortuary practices of those they encountered. If they were repulsed by outsiders' deathways, it was within the context of realizing that the others' ways of dying were central to their ways of living—and thus worth commenting on. They understood the shared humanity of foreigners who, at the bare minimum, also died just as they did and had to do something with corpses.

But what about non-European peoples? They will be central figures in this book, yet their attitudes toward foreign deathways cannot be deduced from the writings of Herodotus and Mandeville. Even though sub-Saharan Africans and North American Indians did not leave written records before the era of European colonization, there is ample archaeological and, later, ethnographic evidence of a similar curiosity about cross-cultural deathways. There are numerous examples of the diffusion of mortuary practices, suggesting mutual interest in deathways when different cultures interacted. For just one illustration of this, consider the Huron Indian Feast of the Dead. This was an Iroquoian ritual of secondary interment: the reburial of bones after they had been allowed to dry on scaffolds. Every decade or so, Hurons—who inhabited the area between Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe in present-day Ontario—buried hundreds of individuals from many villages in a central ossuary. The Algonquian ancestors of the Ojibwa Indians of present-day Michigan, from an entirely different language and cultural group, were so impressed by the Huron Feast of the Dead that they incorporated the practice into their own culture in the second half of the seventeenth century. The Algonquians must have observed the Feast with curiosity, asked questions about it, recognized the ways in which it was similar to and different from their own mortuary rituals, and then decided to incorporate the practice into their deathways.

Thus, residents of the early modern Atlantic world combined inclusivity and exclusivity—a recognition of similarity and difference—when they interacted with outsiders. They used perceived differences to mark boundaries between themselves and others, and they used perceived similarities to reach beyond those boundaries and communicate across cultures. Sometimes they employed both of these strategies simultaneously; in other contexts one reaction predominated over the other.

This, then, is the complex interplay between similarity and difference across cultures that lies beneath the deceptively simple query "How do they bury their dead?" The question recognizes—indeed depends upon—difference. If all societies observed identical mortuary customs the question would be moot; cultural practices must be different in order to inspire curiosity. But the question also presupposes similarity in two ways. First, interest in unfamiliar deathways assumes that members of other societies have enough respect for the dead and experience enough grief over the deaths of loved ones to generate an elaborate system of mortuary practices. The question is never "Do they bother to do anything with the dead?" Second, this curiosity presumes that unfamiliar practices will be similar enough to those of the observer as to be comprehensible. It would be unsatisfying to watch another society's rituals and have absolutely no idea what was going on. Deep parallels in deathways across cultures allow observers at least to think they understand the motivations behind burials, funeral processions, and memorial feasts.

This intricate dance between perceptions of similarity and difference reached perhaps its greatest intensity in world history in the wake of Christopher Columbus. In the centuries following 1492, peoples from Europe, Africa, and the Americas came together in unprecedented ways and in extraordinary numbers, creating what historians now call the Atlantic world. Early modern peoples participated in a profusion of cross-cultural encounters and observed one another with a combination of curiosity and concern. Placing death at the center of an analysis of those encounters offers one great advantage: it allows us, better perhaps than any other conceptual category, to see the world as the participants themselves viewed it.

There are four reasons why death is virtually unmatched for understanding cross-cultural encounters in the New World. First and foremost, death was ubiquitous. The European project of imperial expansion inadvertently spread diseases and deliberately sowed violence. The virgin soil epidemics that devastated Indian populations, the appalling mortality of slaves during the Middle Passage and on New World plantations, the unfamiliar disease environments that decimated Europeans in the Chesapeake and West Indies, the warfare that raged in every corner of the New World: all of this made death an ever-present reality throughout the Americas.

Second, the religious systems of the groups involved in colonial encounters all centered on explaining death and the afterlife. Using a variety of approaches, Christianity, Judaism, and the many polytheistic religions of American Indians and sub-Saharan Africans all concerned themselves with helping believers understand the meaning of death. These religions offered answers to questions such as What happens to my soul or spirit after I die? What is the relationship between this world and the afterlife? How should I live so as to ensure that I will die well? Moreover, they all attempted to redirect toward spiritual ends the universal human emotions of apprehension regarding death and bereavement in response to the death of loved ones.

Third, because all religious systems shared this fundamental concern with death and the afterlife, when individuals met strangers, they were curious about the outsiders' deathways. People recognized the parallel religious interest in death, and they probed deeply to find exactly what the similarities and differences were. Moreover, literate observers offered written accounts of these practices for audiences they knew would share their interests. This means that there are a greater number of extant descriptions of mortuary rituals than of other cultural practices such as foodways or music, though not always as many sources as one might hope for.

Fourth, deathways leave traces in the material record that many other cultural forms do not. This is especially valuable for individuals—illiterate Europeans among them—who did not leave written records. Archaeologists have long recognized this and have examined deathways exhaustively. Through the study of material culture we can learn how residents of the early modern Atlantic world prepared corpses, what they included in their burials, and, in some cases, how they commemorated an individual's death.

Putting death at the center of the history of the New World reveals the critical role of real and perceived cultural parallels in cross-cultural encounters. When people of different cultures came together in the New World, they were always aware of the differences between their own and the outsiders' mortuary practices; they always had—at least to some extent—an exclusive reaction. But they also usually had an inclusive reaction at the same time, noticing the deep parallels between their own and the others' death rituals. People often recognized that they shared with others an attention to proper corpse preparation, an attitude of respect toward a loved one's remains, a desire to remember the dead with speeches and sacred rituals, the experience of grief at the death of one's friends and family members, and much more. They usually realized that despite important differences in the details, there were deep structural parallels in the emotions, rituals, and spiritual implications of death.

Moreover, at least for Europeans, the intellectual frameworks they brought to the New World inclined them to focus on similarities more than differences. Their belief in monogenism—that there was a single creation from which all humans descended—led them to search for evidence that non-Europeans could be fitted into the biblical chronology. And European efforts to describe the New World using the conceptual categories of the Old World only magnified this tendency. Europeans confronted with the newness of the New World framed their observations in terms comprehensible to themselves and their readers, relying on literary techniques of analogy and simile to draw connections between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Thus when the New England theologian and ethnographer Roger Williams searched for the best way to describe Narragansett mourning practices, he wrote that "the men also (as the English wear black mourning clothes) wear black faces, and lay on soot very thick."

Such real and perceived cultural parallels helped facilitate communication and understanding. When, for example, the English colonist Thomas Harriot wrote sympathetically about Carolina Algonquian treatment of dead chiefs, it was explicitly because he saw in those practices parallels with English funerals for elites. And when people of African descent eventually adopted aspects of European burial practices in the eighteenth century, it was facilitated by West African traditions of earth interments followed by feasts. Death served as a common ground that allowed individuals to reach across cultural boundaries and understand unfamiliar peoples.

But the context of colonial encounters was largely exploitative, so the knowledge and understanding gained through parallel deathways were often, ironically, put to manipulative ends. Europeans initiated the expansion of imperial power into the Atlantic world not out of simple wanderlust but from a desire to gain material riches and religious converts. They forced Indians and Africans to labor on plantations and in mines and to listen to stories of a supernatural being called Jesus Christ. Indians and Africans, for their part, desired the trade goods that Europeans carried with them, but they also wanted to retain control over their labor, land, and religious beliefs. In this adversarial setting, knowledge was a precious commodity, a way to gain an advantage over one's rivals. Deathways often became a means to an end. Missionaries frequently used knowledge about Indian deathways to better understand how to gain converts to Christianity. French Jesuits, for example, studied Indian burials precisely so they could use that knowledge to challenge natives on the "absurd" practice of placing trade goods into their interments. And Europeans occasionally used their knowledge in combination with firepower in order to force changes in non-European deathways, as when Hernando Cortés cleared the sacrificial temples of the Mexica and replaced the bloody representations of gods with an image of the Virgin Mary. In response to such death-related incursions on their sovereignty, Indians throughout the Americas quickly learned that Europeans were horrified by corpse mutilation, so they used that information to terrorize their enemies with scalping and other postmortem humiliations. Africans likewise mobilized this knowledge during their rebellions, large and small, that punctuated the history of slavery in the Americas.

Over time, the possibility for cross-cultural understanding attenuated, as this exploitative legacy increasingly structured most interactions. Yet death-inspired cross-cultural understanding never completely disappeared. In the Seven Years' War (1756-63) British officials used hard-won knowledge about Indian deathways to appeal to their crucial allies, the Iroquois. And toward the end of the eighteenth century many African Americans embraced Christian deathways even as they shaped those practices with their own sensibilities.

In addition to the eventual decrease in opportunities for cross-cultural understanding, change over time emerges in this story through the process of syncretism: the blending of two or more cultures, resulting in the creation of new beliefs and practices. Syncretism, like the question that opens this book, results from the intricate interplay between similarity and difference. Without difference, cultural blending would be meaningless. The creation of new practices through syncretism depends upon the interaction of different cultural forms. Yet syncretism also reveals the importance of cultural parallels, for it was the deep similarities in various peoples' deathways that smoothed the way for the emergence of New World cultural practices. When, for example, New England Algonquians prayed to the Christian god under a tree after a funeral in 1647, they combined precontact beliefs about trees connecting this world and the supernatural world with supplication to a new supernatural being.

But just as with cultural parallels, syncretism also demonstrates the importance of power, for it was Indians and Africans whose deathways changed the most in the New World. New England Puritans did not join their Algonquian neighbors in offering postfuneral prayers under trees. Indeed, Christians and Jews in the Americas experienced only minor changes in their deathways. In most ways their mortuary practices continued to resemble those of their coreligionists in Europe. The changes that did occur owed more to the New World environment than to the unfamiliar cultures Europeans encountered there. For example, Euro-Americans were much more likely in the seventeenth century to be buried in coffins than were Europeans, due to the abundance of trees and the resulting low cost of wood in the Americas. By contrast, those with less power in colonial encounters found their deathways eventually changed to a greater degree. Many Indians in eastern North America ultimately became Christianized and thus made important changes in their burial and mourning practices. But despite the best efforts of missionaries, Christian Indian deathways remained a complex hybrid of traditional and innovative practices. Likewise, most Africans in the New World eventually became Christians, though typically later than Indians did. When Africans did embrace Christianity, it was again on their own terms, choosing deathways that blended African and Christian practices.

My arguments about similarity and difference, cultural parallels, and syncretism emerge from an engagement with several fields of historical scholarship. One is the literature on cross-cultural encounters in the early modern period. A generation ago scholars emphasized what they saw as the great cultural differences between Europeans and the Indians and Africans with whom they interacted in the New World. Here is how Neal Salisbury, in his masterful Manitou and Providence (1982), described the contrast between Indians and Europeans: "The delicately balanced, self-sufficient, kin-based communities with their ritualized reciprocal exchanges and their Neolithic technologies had been reached by the expanding nation-states of Europe, with all their instability and upheavals as well as their organizational and technological accomplishments." Likewise, in Winthrop Jordan's White over Black (1968), English attitudes toward sub-Saharan Africans were shaped primarily by negative English perceptions of difference regarding religion, sexual behaviors, and especially skin color.

More recently, historians have begun to examine the cultural parallels that facilitated communication across cultural boundaries. Scholars of African-European interactions now see numerous correspondences across cultures. John Thornton, for example, argues that deep similarities in Christian and African religions allowed for the creation of a new synthesis. Africans and Europeans, Thornton writes, "had a number of major ideas in common. Had they not shared these ideas, the development of African Christianity would probably not have been possible." Similarly, recent work on Indian-European interactions moves away from older formulations of essential difference. Allan Greer's Mohawk Saint (2005) is emblematic of this newer approach. Greer introduces his dual biography of Catherine Tekakwitha and Claude Chauchetière in the following way: "Though difference—the great cultural gulf separating natives and newcomers—will be readily apparent, convergent tendencies are just as notable. In spite of the missionary sources' tendency to exaggerate difference, natives and French had a good deal of common, or at least commensurable, ground in their religious beliefs, medical practices, ceremonies, and customs." Nancy Shoemaker takes this approach one step further. In A Strange Likeness (2004), she argues that "Indian and European similarities enabled them to see their differences in sharper relief and, over the course of the eighteenth century, construct new identities that exaggerated the contrasts between them while ignoring what they had in common." For Shoemaker, racial ideologies emerged out of the interplay between similarity and difference. Death in the New World builds on the insights of Thornton, Greer, Shoemaker, and others, while insisting that knowledge about cultural parallels was turned toward manipulative ends earlier and more frequently than these authors allow. Given the exploitative context of European colonialism, parallel deathways played a charged role in cross-cultural contests for power.

This book also engages with the rapidly growing field of Atlantic history, which examines the connections among the peoples and products of the four continents bordering that ocean. Much Atlantic scholarship is divided along imperial lines, with separate studies of the English, French, and Spanish Atlantics. Those studies that are comparative have until recently emphasized the differences between various imperial experiences. Death in the New World reinforces the newer insights of J. H. Elliott's Empires of the Atlantic World (2006) and Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra's Puritan Conquistadors (2006) by highlighting the many ways that Spanish and English (and in my case French) experiences in the New World corresponded with one another. With missionaries and traders from all three imperial powers indebted to ideas about death that stretched back long before the Reformation, colonists drew on a common store of conceptual categories, such as the distinction between good and bad deaths and the belief that royal corpses deserved special attention. Although they used these categories in varying ways, individuals from all these European nations attempted to exploit parallel deathways to gain cultural and economic advantages over Indians and Africans, even as Indians and Africans used deathways to resist all three colonizing powers.

Death in the New World, despite its expansive title, focuses only on the eastern third of North America and the Caribbean, and even within that limited range the coverage is not encyclopedic. The narratives are set in places where the sources allow for the most detailed reconstruction of cross-cultural interactions. The chapters proceed roughly chronologically, but there is not a single narrative arc. Rather, the various stories overlap and resonate with one another thematically. They all point to the central role that death played in shaping the encounters among Indians, Africans, and Europeans in the Americas. The stories show that reactions to strangers fell along a spectrum from inclusive to exclusive, pivoting on perceptions of similarity and difference, and how even inclusive reactions could be used to exacerbate the New World's unequal power relations. More broadly, they suggest that in colonial encounters knowledge could facilitate both intercultural cooperation and exploitation, sometimes simultaneously. Together these narratives demonstrate why residents of the early modern Atlantic world saw so much at stake in learning about unfamiliar deathways, and why they so frequently asked about those they encountered, "How do they bury their dead?"