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Funeral rites
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Since the 1960s, all burials take place in a village graveyard for fear otherwise of displeasing the deceased. This was not the practice in former times. Christianization and then Sovietization introduced changes. The sources are scarce and partial; an overview can be found in Tugolukov, ìPokhoronnaja obrjadnostî, Semejnaja obrajadností narodov Sibiri, 1980, Moscow, Nauka, 238: 165ñ182.

Pre-Soviet funeral rites
We know about pre-Christian times practices thanks to accounts of 17th- and 18th-century travelers (among whom Lindenau 1744ñ1745). The deceased was placed on a raised platform (whence the name of ìraised tombsî) and, to protect it from carrion-eaters it was covered with a sort of coffin dug out of a tree trunk or by a hut made of birch branches or bark. The body was rolled in an animal skin or in one of the panels of the hut (birch bark or reindeer hide), then it was deposited directly in a tree and covered with boughs. Among horse-herders, the deceased was laid on the ground, and stones and earth were piled on top of the body. Only one Evenk group practiced cremation of certain elderly people in the mountains. According to the sources, the deceased was left dressed as he/she was at the time of death or, in the case of the Evenk today, was dressed in a richly ornamented costume made during his lifetime.
The deceasedís ìvitalî objects were always placed beside the body or suspended in the vicinity. For a woman, these were the tools she used for sewing and working skins; for a man they were his ax and his hunting equipment; and for a shaman, his costume and his paraphernalia (unless he had decided to leave them to someone). Tobacco and a cooking pot were placed with everyone. These objects had to be broken or pierced ìso that the soul of the deceased might get away more quicklyî. In the same line of logic, the burial costume was not tied and the shoes did not have soles or the soles had holes in them.
Depending on the region, one or two animals were killed. One, supposed to lead the deceased to the world of the dead, was the reindeer he rode when he was alive; generally it was cooked over a fire lit near the burial place and eaten on the spot so as to ìshareî it with the deceased; the remains (head, skin, backbone, hooves, entrails) were hung in a nearby tree; the blood was used to anoint the posts of the raised tomb or, in Sakhalin, the body itself. Sometimes the second animal was left alive and tied to the tomb, while the first one, killed and cooked on the spot, was used for the feast.
Usually the deceased was placed with his or her head to the West (the direction in which the souls depart), but with the face turned to the East (there where the souls are reborn), and the head was propped up ìso that he could watch the sun riseî.
Before leaving the burial site, a cleansing fumigation was performed. Everyone circled the grave three times turning counterclockwise. Then they would leave, walking backwards in Indian file, sweeping away their footprints in the snow or covering them with branches in summer, so that the deceased could not follow the living. In camp, they destroyed the deceasedís hut, burned his clothing and moved the camp as far away as possible. Anyone who comes upon a grave must make an offering (tobacco, food, alcohol. Among Evenk of the Stony Tunguska, the shaman makes a ìspirit pathî with wood carvings (birds, humans, animals) and mimes a long march to go for the deceasedís ìgiftî to the living, a promise of game or a newborn human (Vasilevic).
In the 19th century, a decree was published forbidding raised tombs and imposing burial. The only ones to be placed in raised tombs now are shamans, children and old people.

Funeral rites under the Soviet regime
With organization into villages and the expansion of means of transport, people got into the habit of burying the dead in the village graveyard (in general there was an Evenk cemetery and a Russian cemetery in every village). The killing of the reindeer was gradually shifted from the burial site to the house of the deceased. For a long time, the deceasedís spouse led a procession to go and place the head and the skin of the riding reindeer in an elevated place, for example on a tree branch beside the tomb. Today the placing of the deceasedís belongings in the coffin and the animal offerings on the grave have almost disappeared; these are left in the taiga where, within three to nine days, the deceased is supposed to go and collect them before ìleavingî. Today it is only the old people who still keep their fallen hair and nail-parings in a little sack that is to be placed in a pillow under their head in their coffin, so as to shorten their journey and to ìleaveî more quickly for their death. Some widely traveled intellectuals joke bitterly about the length of the journey they will have to make to reach the world of the dead. The deceased is not commemorated in the Russian fashion so as not to keep him from ìleavingî.
Although every taiga Evenk is buried in the village graveyard, his valuable belongings (hunting and fishing equipment, tent, valuables, carrying bags, etc.) are left in the taiga. They are sometimes hung in the trees around the campsite abandoned at the time of the death for three years. More often they are kept in his raised larder. No one is supposed to touch them, except for the person authorized by the deceased, and then only after an interval of three years. The funeral site has thus been split in two, which does nothing to appease the latent fear of the dead.

Post-Soviet funeral rites.
The influence of the Russian model has brought confusion and uncertainty. Today Evenk funeral rituals look for all the world like their Russian counterparts: the first wake, the shape of the coffin, the burial, etc. Yet the explanations the Evenk give of their borrowed gestures seem to correspond perfectly their conception of the traditional life-cycle. Close kin are not supposed to take an active part in these rites for fear that the deceased might decide to take them with him. Pregnant women, small children and hunters are forbidden to follow the procession or to get too close to the body for the same reason. Finally, The Evenk try not to show sorrow, tears are forbidden, however strong the grief, because this could prevent the deceased from departing for the world of the dead. The blood of the sacrificial reindeer that is poured onto the coffin once it is in the ground, the dishes or the objects specially broken and deposited in the coffin, the untied laces of the deceasedís clothing, the games that accompany the wake, the neglected graves, are all signs that suggest that, although the outward form of the Evenk funeral ritual may have been Russified, the basic content remains relatively consistent with their vision of the life-cycle.

Author(s): A. Lavrillier
Date created: 2004-03-02 - Date modified: 2004-04-14


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