These horribly unfragrant marais were also considered as family mausoleums, where the dried bones of great men might safely be deposited. Nevertheless, even the sanctity of the temple did not always protect the dead from ruthless spoliation; and in times of war the victors not only carried off the idols of the vanquished, but also the bones of their relations, to be converted into chisels or fish-hooks, which was considered the lowest depth of degradation.
To avoid this danger, the dead were laid in small houses apart, and carefully watched, till the flesh fell from their bones, when these were collected by a trusty hand, and carried to some safe hiding-place in the mountains. In the case of any person of great note, this custom is still observed, as I learnt on visiting the little sea-side chapel where old Queen Pomare was buried shortly before my arrival; and I was told her bones had been secretly removed, only three or four of her nearest kindred being aware of their present hiding-place.
In olden days, however, a simple process of embalming was practised, by means of which the wealthier families could preserve their dead for about a year, not longer. The brain and intestines having been removed, they were replaced by cloth saturated with aromatic oils, which were also daily rubbed all over the corpse. Every day it was placed in a sitting posture in the sun, that it might gradually become dried up; and an altar was erected before it, on which were daily offered fresh flowers, and fruit, and other food. With this the relations or priests touched the lips of the dead several times a-day, for, like the Chinese, they averred that the departed spirit came to feast on the spiritual essence of the gross meats.
Indeed the whole ceremony savours of Chinese custom. There
- The gods also were supposed to feed on the essence of the food offered to them. Every evening the priest in the principal temple of Mangaia cooked an ovenful of taro for their use, and threw one root at a time into the scrub, dedicating each to one of the gods. When the thirteen principal deities had thus been recognised the priest threw one more, as an offering to all the lesser gods, of whose names and attributes he was ignorant. This ceremony exactly answers to one which I have seen practised at the Buddhist monasteries in China, where, ere the monks taste their own food, a small portion is set aside on a pillar, as an offering to any saintly or divine beings whom they have neglected in their temple-worship.