Burial / Funeral Customs
Native American Burial and Funeral Customs
Native American funeral traditions and rituals differed from tribe to tribe. The one belief that is common among Native American tribes that influences death rituals is the focus on helping the deceased be comfortable in the afterlife or protecting them in the afterlife.
Burial customs varied widely from tribe to tribe.
Arctic tribes, simply left their dead on the frozen ground for wild animals to devour. The ancient mound-building Hopewell societies of the Upper Midwest, by contrast, placed the dead in lavishly furnished tombs.
Southeastern tribes practiced secondary bone burial. They dug up their corpses, cleansed the bones, and then reburied them. The Northeast Iroquois, before they formed the Five Nations Confederation in the seventeenth century, saved skeletons of the deceased for a final mass burial that included furs and ornaments for the dead spirits’ use in the afterlife.
Northwest coastal tribes put their dead in mortuary cabins or canoes fastened to poles. Further south, California tribes practiced cremation. In western mountain areas tribes often deposited their dead in caves or fissures in the rocks.
Nomadic tribes in the Great Plains region either buried their dead, if the ground was soft, or left them on tree platforms or on scaffolds.
Central and South Atlantic tribes embalmed and mummified their dead. But during outbreaks of smallpox or other diseases leading to the sudden deaths of many tribe members, survivors hurriedly cast the corpses into a mass grave or threw them into a river.
Modern day Native Americans may continue to incorporate some aspects of ancient death rituals, handed down from their ancestors, in a modern funeral service.
Juaneño Band of Mission Indians Funeral Ceremonies
Before treating upon the subject of their manner of interment, I will just refer to the remedies used for their diseases.
They possessed some knowledge of the virtues of certain medicinal herbs, and the external application of them to cutaneous disorders; but for internal diseases, such as fevers, etc., they always resorted to cold baths. For pains in the head, immediate application of cold water was the remedy.
The Navajo people believed that when someone dies, they go to the underworld. Certain precautions must be taken during the burial process to ensure that they don’t return to the world of the living. These visits were to be avoided at all costs, and for this reason, Navajo people were very reluctant to look at a dead body. Contact with the body was limited to only a few individuals.
Yurok myths ascribed creation to Wohpekumew, “widower across the ocean.” Their world was thought to float on water, and, as Kroeber related, “at the head of the river in the sky, where the Deerskin dance is danced nightly, are a gigantic white coyote and his yellow mate.”
Yurok dances expressed their beliefs. The motive of such dances was to renew or maintain the world, beginning with the reciting of long formula, after which a dance ensued.