Death & Mourning

In Modoc culture, cremation was the primary method for remains. Regardless of community stature, character, or cause of death, all deceased individuals were cremated.  If possible, warriors who were killed were brought home for cremation, otherwise the warrior would be cremated at the battle site.  Only in situations where they were left with no choice would a body be abandoned.

Performed by a female relative, after death the body and face were washed, with the hair being combed or braided in an ordinary way.  The eyelids would be closed, fists unclenched, and new clothing would be put on the individual, leaving the old clothes to be burned as well.  The family would add many ornaments and decorations, including necklaces and other beadwork.  Lastly, the arms would be crossed and placed over the chest.

A pyre would be prepared by usually women, located on a rocky eminence.  Initially, the builders would clear an area, then carry stones to create a leveled spot.  The pyre would be built in a rectangular shape about four by eight feet, and at least three to four feet high, with large logs placed at the base and lighter materials placed at the top.

The individuals who experienced loss most directly, such as someone who lost a spouse or child, would be called a “chief mourner”.  If a child lost a parent, often times their hair would be cut.  If the chief mourner was a man, he would leave during the first phase of his “crisis quest” or be left to weep in secrecy. He would return at the time of cremation.  In cases where a shaman was a chief mourner, he would not return for the funeral, but take a mourner’s quest.  A female chief mourner would stay at the home to weep, recalling the loss.

All chief mourners would begin a fast after the death, to continue until after cremation, or in some cases three to four days.  Others not consider chief mourners would eat a morning meal prior to the cremation ceremony.

Typically during cremation, the body was taken to the cremation place of the paternal relatives.  This process was to take place as soon as possible after death, not exceeding twelve to eight hours.  The body would be loosely wrapped in white or tanned buckskin, or sometimes matting was used.  Another tanned buckskin would be placed under the body for four pallbearers (typically men) to hold on to.  The bearers would be friends or distant relatives.

Once the pyre is reached the bearers would fold the corners of the carrying robe over the body, and then place the body with the head facing west, the direction of the supernatural world. At this time all old clothing and personal belongings would be placed along the pyre.   Four tenders would maintain the fire for as long as necessary.

A small group would sit around the pyre, while only the fire tenders stood.  All present would remain until the fire burned out.  No ash would be collected and stones would be placed on top. After cremation, mourners would be marked by smearing pine pitch on the skin and/or hair for about ten days.  The woman’s hair would be cut by the mother-in-law or the aunt-in-law of the mourner, and the men would cut their own hair about shoulder length.

The community was discouraged against speaking the person’s name and the destruction of the dead’s personal belongings appear to be an effort to avoid painful reminders during the grieving process.  The person would be referred to by his place of nativity.  Mourning was expected to last a year or longer.