Upon the death of an Indian his body was turned over to a few members of the tribe who had been chosen by his relatives to perform the burial rites. The body was sewn in skins and, after a suitable pile of dry wood had been collected, the body with all his earthly possessions, together with gifts presented by relatives and friends, was placed on top of the wood, and when all was ready the pile fired by one of the assistants. As soon as the fire was lighted the professional mourners would begin their dance, circling round and round the burning pile, accompanying their weird contortions by the most unearthly wailing and howling. When one of these became exhausted and dropped out her place was immediately taken by another, and the dance kept up until the whole pile was consumed. The belief that by burning the body the spirit was more quickly released for its journey to El-o-win, and therefore stood a much better chance of escaping the evil spirits, who, upon the death of an Indian were believed to gather around the dead body awaiting their chance to capture the escaping spirit and carry it away to their own land of darkness and misery, was principally responsible for this practice.
Galen Clark says in his book "Indians of the Yosemite" that: "These Indians believe that everything on earth, both natural and artificial, is endowed with an immortal spirit, which is indestructible, and that whatever personal property or precious gifts are burned, either with
the body or in later years for the departed friends' benefit, will be received and made use of in the spirit world. In recent years the Yo-sem-i-tes and other remnants of tribes closely associated with them, have adopted the custom of the white people, and bury their dead. The fine expensive blankets, and most beautifully worked baskets, which have been kept sacredly in hiding for many years, to be buried with the owner, are now cut into small fragments before being deposited in the ground for fear some white person will desecrate the grave by digging them up and carrying them away."
There is also a curious myth or legend regarding the source of this practice of burning the dead. It seems that in the beginning it was the plan of Coyote-man, who is believed to have been the creator of all things, to have the dead covered for four days with a blanket, after which they would be reborn in the prime of manhood, thus doing away with the comparatively useless period of childhood, and prolonging existence indefinitely. This plan suited everybody until someone died just as Lark-man was getting married. The body was covered as usual and for a day or two everything was all right, then obnoxious odors began rising from the body, and the breeze wafted these into the hut of Lark-man, who, quite properly resented having his honeymoon spoiled in that way, and said so in no uncertain terms. He contended that the proper thing to do was burn the body, thus doing away with the source of the objectionable odors and allowing people to enjoy themselves in peace.
The matter was argued at some length, but finally his suggestion was adopted and the body burned. This custom has been practiced ever since, though it put an effective stop to Coyote-man's plan of having life renewed over and over.