Spirits and Cemeteries: Burial Traditions of Michigan and Beyond

Spirits and Cemeteries: Burial Traditions of Michigan and Beyond
Dr. Goldstein, Mari, and Jack investigating a possible mound
Dr. Goldstein, Mari, and Jack investigating a possible mound

In mid-October I went with Dr. Goldstein and CAP Fellows Mari and Jack to check out a possible precontact-period Native American burial mound. Although we are Campus Archaeology, we like to do outreach that extends beyond MSU. This usually entails activities at elementary schools, the Apparitions and Archaeology tour, Michigan Archaeology Day, etc., but this was a unique opportunity to help out a landowner who was curious about a unique feature on his land. More importantly, it was a potential opportunity to document an important aspect of Native American cultural heritage.

Mounds constructed by Native American groups are found across Eastern North America, some of the earliest dating back thousands of years. Some of these are large platform mounds, such as Monk’s Mound at Cahokia in Illinois (if you haven’t heard of this ancient city, look it up!), which were used for ceremonial purposes, but there are few of these in Michigan. More common in this area are conical (round) burial mounds, attributed primarily to Woodland groups (1000 BC – AD 1600). Mounds are often found in groups, and while you may equate this to an ancient cemetery, you should instead be careful of such a simple comparison.

Euro-American culture generally separates the physical remains of the deceased from any spiritual significance. Cemeteries are where bodies are laid to rest, while the individual’s spirit or soul continues on elsewhere. Therefore, cemeteries are places of memorial for those who remember the deceased, typically secular in nature. While we respect human remains, their significance lies in the memory of the living, and memory, as we know, is often fleeting.

On the other hand, Native American societies believe that the human remains hold spiritual significance and power. Therefore, burial grounds, including mounds, are sacred spaces – sanctified grounds of great ideological importance. Native peoples past and present feel that they are spiritually linked to all their ancestors and are therefore responsible for protecting their physical remains in perpetuity, ensuring they are undisturbed.

A burial mound in Kalamazoo County, MI
A burial mound in Kalamazoo County, MI. Image Source

Understanding this ideological difference about human remains is important for understanding why archaeologists strive to preserve and protect these burials. While archaeologists find ancient skeletons very informative about past lifeways, we have come to understand the value of human remains to their descendant communities. We now identify mounds in order to protect them, and no longer excavate them unless they will be destroyed by construction and an agreement has been made with affiliated Native American tribes to move the remains elsewhere. Laws such as NAGPRA have been enacted to aid in the protection of these important heritage sites. We encourage our readers to respect these sacred mounds and leave them undisturbed.

Turtle Effigy mound on Observatory Hill, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Turtle Effigy mound on Observatory Hill, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Image Source

While we don’t have any burials, ancient or recent, on the MSU grounds, The University of Wisconsin-Madison (my alma mater) has a few effigy mounds on its campus. The Effigy Mound Tradition (AD 650 – 1200) of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois constructed burial mounds in the shapes of birds, various quadrupeds, and even the mythical water panther (a tear-drop shape). Our own Dr. Goldstein (1995) wrote a wonderful piece on how the effigy mounds not only represented clans, but also mapped out important resources across the landscape. These mounds, therefore, were layered with meaning and integrated the sacred remains of the dead with the spiritual and physical sustenance of the living.

Ultimately, our mound hunting expedition turned up short. The feature we investigated was sadly not an ancient Native American mound, but we are grateful the landowner called on us to check it out. We would rather investigate a false mound than allow a legitimate mound to remain undocumented and endangered. In the end it was a fun expedition to the woods, and we all learned a lot from the experience.

Where ancient and modern burials meet: Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, WI, is built around a Effigy Mound group
Where ancient and modern burials meet: Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, WI, is built around a Effigy Mound group. Image Source

And if you find yourself wandering about a modern or historic cemetery this Halloween, try to remember that these are places for memorial of those who have gone before us, and be respectful. But… that doesn’t mean that you can’t look for some lingering spirits along the way….

Author: Susan Kooiman


Goldstein, Lynne
1995   Landscapes and Mortuary Practices: A Case for Regional Perspectives. In  Regional Approaches to Mortuary Analysis, edited by Lane A. Beck, pp. 101 – 121. Plenum Press, New York.


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