#11 Death, and Life in the Land of the Dead
     (Knud Rasmussen, 1921-24)

…No Eskimo fears death in itself, for all are convinced that it is merely the transition to a new and better form of life. But as mentioned elsewhere, there is also this mystery connected with the soul, that as soon as death has deprived it of the body, it can turn upon the living as an evil and ruthless spirit. The soul of a good and peaceable man may suddenly turn into an evil spirit. There is therefore much intricate taboo associated with death…

…After death, there are two different places to which one may pass either up into heaven to the Udlormiut, or People of Day: their land lies in the direction of dawn, and is the same as the Land of the Moon Spirit. The other place to which the dead may come lies down under the sea. It is a narrow strip of land, with sea on either side: and the inhabitants are therefore called Qimiujârmiut: “the dwellers in the narrow land.” The immigrant Netsilingmiut call them Atlêt: “those lowest down,” for they live in a world below the world in which we live.

Here also dwells the great Sea Spirit Takánakapsâluk.

As already mentioned, persons dying by violence, whether through no fault of their own or by their own hand, pass Udlormiut: those dying a natural death, by disease. go to Qimiujârmiut. Life in the Land of the Dead is described later under Shamans. It is pleasant both in the Land of Day and in the Narrow Land. ..

Some hold that all dead persons, whatever the manner of their death, go first to Takánakapsâluk, who then alone determiners where they are to dwell; those who have lived a good life without breach of taboo are sent on at once to the Land of Day, whereas those who have failed to observe the ancient rules of life are detained in her house to expiate their misdeeds, before being allowed to proceed to the Narrow Land. The dead suffer no hardship, wherever they may go, but most prefer to nevertheless to dwell in the Land of the Day, where the pleasures appear to be without limit. ..

Anyone having relatives among the Udlormiut and wishing to join them after death, can avoid being sent to the Qimiujármiut: the survivors must then lay the body out on the ice instead of burying it on land. Blocks of snow are then set out round the body, not stones, as on land. Often indeed, a small snow hut is built up over the body as it lies. But it is not everyone who can reckon on their surviving relatives’ or neighbours’ taking all this trouble, and in order to make sure of coming to the Udlormiut, the best way is to arrange one’s death oneself. This was done not long since by an old woman named Inuguk, of Iglulik. Her son had perished while out in his kayak, and as she did not live in the same village herself, the news did not reach her until the winter was well advanced. She was old and without other relatives, and could not be certain that others would comply with her wishes when once she was dead; she therefore cut a hole for herself in the ice of a big lake and drowned herself there in order to join her son.

Another example is likewise recorded from Iglulik: an old woman was frozen to death during a severe winter with scarcity of food. When her son learned the news, he went out one cold winter’s night and lay down naked in the snow and was frozen to death himself. This he did because he was very fond of his mother, and wished to live with her in the Land of the Dead.

These suicides, however, had some special reason for taking their own lives. The Eskimos’ fearlessness of death is more powerfully illustrated in the case of the many old men and women who ended their lives by hanging themselves. This is done probably not only because the Moon Spirit says that the whole thing is but a moment’s dizziness, but possibly also because of an ancient belief that death by violence has a purifying effect.”. . .

[#11] Knud Rasmussen, Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos (Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24) (Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag, 1929): 92-97.

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