When a Choctaw tribal member became terminally ill, it was common practice for the medicine man to inform the family of impending death (Swanton 1931:170). Upon death, the Choctaws believed that the spirit of the dead continued on a voyage to either the good hunting ground or the bad hunting ground. This journey would take many days, which would require the proper provisions. A dog would sometimes be slain in order to accompany his master on the long journey. After the introduction of horses, they, too, were killed so that the spirit had means of transportation. Food, drink, clothing and shoes were also offered (Cushman 1999:302, Swanton 1931:170).
After death, the corpse was placed on a scaffolding about five or six feet above ground. The platform was constructed of timber and placed on poles. The body was then covered with a blanket made of animal skin and tree bark so not to attract scavenging animals. The body remained in this position until the flesh decayed, approximately four to six months (Cushman 1999:302-3). During this time, immediate family was considered to be in formal mourning. Each day for a short period of time, family members would be found weeping at the scaffolding (Fogelson 2004:507).
Once the flesh had decayed, the bone picker began his ritual. “The Bone-Picker never trimmed the nails of his thumbs, index and middle fingers which accordingly grew to an astonishing length – sharp and almost hard as flint – and well adapted to the horrid business of their owner’s calling” (Swanton 1931:176). The remaining flesh, tendons, muscles and nerves were ripped from the skeleton, bundled up and placed on the corner of the platform and burned, or disposed of in a field (Cushman 1999:303, Swanton 1931:176). Once the bones were deposited in the mortuary box, the tribe partook in a funeral feast, conducted by the bone picker, whom had not yet washed his hands (Debo 1934:5, Folgelson 2004:508). The bone box was then stored inside a structure built solely for the purpose of housing the bones of the deceased (Cushman 1999:303). The boxes of bones were placed together with the remains of other Choctaws. A ceremony of mourning occurred once or twice during a single year. Once the simple structure was full, the hampers were removed and buried under large earthen mounds (Debo 1934:5-6).
The Choctaw believed in a dual afterlife, much like Christianity’s Heaven and Hell. The spirit remained with the body for some time before beginning its journey to the good hunting ground. A treacherous mountain range, running east to west, separated the good hunting ground to the south and the bad hunting ground to the north. It was believed that no human, only spirits, could pass over the...