When a person would die in the longhouse, it was the custom to cut a hole in the outer wall of the longhouse adjacent to where the body was lying on its ordinary sleeping platform, and take the body out through that hole. This hole would then be re-boarded up. It was the belief that the spirit of the deceased would attempt to re-enter the longhouse through the opening from which his/her body was taken; therefore, they would not take the body out through the normal doorway, and would re-board the new opening in order to block re- entry. This was done because the departed spirit would desire to return and find a loved one whom they could take with them on their spirit journey. They would become discouraged and depart in peace when they returned and found no opening where they had left the longhouse.
The body of the deceased would be placed in a canoe, dressed in the best garments available and well wrapped with a blanket and mats of rushes. His/her possessions would be placed in the canoe for them to take with them on their spirit journey. A woman would take her favorite gathering and cooking baskets, etc., while a man may take his favorite fishing and hunting equipment. The eyes were covered with a bandage of Hiaqua (Dentalium shells), and the nostrils with the same. The body was placed face downward in the canoe, with the head pointing to the mouth of the river, and then covered with mats. If the deceased person was of high rank and owned slaves, then two of his favorite slaves may be killed. One would be placed in the prow of the canoe and the other in the stern. The deceased would then have two of his friends to accompany him on his spirit journey. His family and his friends would be pleased to know that he would not be alone in the spirit world.
Holes would be made in the canoe, baskets, etc. allowing for drainage so that the Water would not accumulate. These burial canoes were placed on stanchions so that they would be above ground, and were placed either on an island in the river or on the opposite bank of the river from the village. These burial canoes revealed many examples of the high-prowed “Chinookian” canoe (Nootkan), which were probably acquired through trade.
Lt. Charles Wilkes reported, “On the Cowlitz we observed many canoes near the bank of the river, supported between four trees; these contain the remains of the dead … all the Indians have a great regard for these places of internment, and consider them as being sacred.”
The artist, Paul Kane, painted a picture of one of these sacred burial sites. This village, instead of using trees, placed the burial canoes on stanchions which may be considered to be somewhat similar to today’s carpenter’s sawhorses.
The story of Coffin Rock, which once was and no longer exists, is the story of a great tragedy. It was a 225 foot mound of black basalt on the north bank of the Columbia River, three miles downstream from the mouth of the Cowlitz River. This rock had long been a landmark to the Indians of the area, and was noticed by the American and British explorers who first traveled the river. Five months after Yankee Captain Robert Gray discovered and named the Columbia in May 1792, Lieutenant William Broughton of the British Navy traveled up the river for 100 miles, naming geographical features along the way. He called the rock, Mt. Coffin. Lewis and Clark noted the prominence of the great rock when they drifted past it on November 8, 1805. They estimated its height as 225 feet and its circumference as about a mile.
Lieutenant Broughton apparently chose Mt Coffin as the name for the stone hill after observing that the rock was used as a burial ground by the local Indians. The top and slopes were nearly covered with canoe-caskets and blanketed remains of the deceased placed different levels on the rock according to their caste in life. Other explorers for half a century were to note and report the unusual graveyard until, in 1841, a mapping party under Lieutenant Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy came to the Columbia River to draw river charts. The party camped one night on the bar not far from Coffin Rock. As they were departing the next morning, a fire began burning rather briskly in the underbrush at the base of Coffin Rock. It quickly spread to the slopes and soon burned clean the cedar canoes and the skeletons of the dead. Probably, Lieutenant Wilkes had planned the fire as a means of improving the ecology of the site, but it became another oppressive action of the incoming tide of the new dominant society.
Coffin Rock was included in the homestead which was staked out by pioneer Noyes Stone soon after the donation land claim program
was established in Oregon Territory in the early 1850’s. Ten years later, D. W. Bush bought the Stone claim, including Coffin Rock, and retained possession for forty-eight years. In 1908, Mr. Bush sold Coffin Rock to Star Sand and Gravel Company of Portland. The gravel company soon installed a rock-crusher and began a methodical conversion of the rock into rip-rap material for dikes and jetties, and into crushed rock for roadways and foundations. By 1952, Coffin Rock had been reduced to the level of the surrounding land. At that time Weyerhaeuser bought the property on which the famous landmark once stood. The site became occupied by the company’s Longview Chemical Plant. Again, the land had been raped and robbed of one of its sacred places.