The Jesuit missionary, P. de Brebeuf, who assisted at one of the “feasts of the dead” at the village of Ossosane, before the dispersion of the Hurons, relates that the ceremony took place in the presence of 2,000 Indians, who offered 1,300 presents at the common tomb, in testimony of their grief. The people belonging to five large villages deposited the bones of their dead in a gigantic shroud, composed of forty-eight robes, each robe being made of ten beaver skins. After being carefully wrapped in this shroud, they were placed between moss and bark. A wall of stones was built around this vast ossuary to preserve it from profanation. Before covering the bones with earth a few grains of Indian corn were thrown by the women upon the sacred relics. According to the superstitious belief of the Hurons the souls of the dead remain near the bodies until the “feast of the dead”; after which ceremony they become free, and can at once depart for the land of spirits, which they believe to be situated in the regions of the setting sun.
Ossuaries have not been used by savage nations alone, for the custom of exhuming the bones of the dead after a certain period, and collecting them in suitable receptacles, is well known to have been practiced in Italy, Switzerland, and France. The writer saw in the church-yard of Zug, Switzerland, in 1857, a slatted pen containing the remains of hundreds of individuals. These had been dug up from the grave-yard and preserved in the manner indicated. The catacombs of Naples and Paris afford examples of burial ossuaries.
The following account is by Dr. S.G. Wright, acting physician to the Leech Lake Agency, Minnesota:—
Pagan Indians or those who have not become Christians still adhere to the ancient practice of feasting at the grave of departed friends; the object is to feast with the departed; that is, they believe that while they partake of the visible material the departed spirit partakes at the same time of the spirit that dwells in the food. From ancient time it was customary to bury with the dead various articles, such especially as were most valued in lifetime. The idea was that there was a spirit dwelling in the article represented by the material article; thus the war-club contained a spiritual war-club, the pipe a spiritual pipe, which could be used by the departed in another world. These several spiritual implements were supposed, of course, to accompany the soul, to be used also on the way to its final abode. This habit has now ceased.
This subject has been sufficiently mentioned elsewhere in connection with other matters and does not need to be now repeated. It has been an almost universal custom throughout the whole extent of the country to place food in or near the grave of deceased persons.