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History of Cremation

Some Native Americans practiced cremation in the early 19th century, although customs varied widely from tribe to tribe. In 1831, a fur trader named Ross Cox published his observations of a cremation ceremony performed by the Tolkotins of Oregon. According to Cox, after the death of a male tribe member the body was laid out for nine days before being cremated. During this time, the wife of the deceased would sleep next to the body. On the tenth day, the body was placed onto a pile of cyprus sticks and the widow again lied next to it as it was lit on fire, being removed before the flames consumed her. During the cremation process, she reached her hands into the flames two more times in a final, desperate attempt to save her husband. After the fire had extinguished, the widow collected the bones, wrapped them in birch bark and carried them on her back for several years. The ashes were also collected and buried in a grave which the wife tended to diligently, pulling out weeds with her fingers, lest she be beaten by her husband’s remaining relatives.

Members of other tribes were known to throw their most valued possessions into the fire during cremation ceremonies.

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