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, for example, 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.
Navajo Customs When Dying at Home
When death was imminent, the Navajo person was taken to a separate place until he or she died. If a person passed away in their own home, then the dwelling was torn down and destroyed. Family members and the medicine man stayed with the person until close to the end. Shortly before death, everyone except for one or two individuals would leave. Those who remain would be the closest relatives of the terminal person, and the most willing to expose themselves to evil spirits.
Navajo Burial Customs for Preparing the Body
After death occurred, two men were entrusted with preparing the body for burial. They did not wear clothing during this process, except their moccasins. Before starting the process, the body handlers smeared ash all over their bodies. It was thought that the ash would protect them from evil spirits.
Before burial, the body was thoroughly washed and dressed. It was believed that if the burial was not handled in the proper fashion, the person’s spirit would return to his or her former home.
Two other men dug the grave while the body was being prepared for burial. The funeral was held as soon as possible, usually the next day. These four men were the only ones present at the burial.
The deceased person’s belongings were loaded onto a horse and brought to the grave site, led by one of the four mourners. Two others carry the body on their shoulders to the area. The fourth man warned those he met enroute to the gravesite that they may want to stay away from the area.
Once the body was interned, great care was taken to ensure that no footprints were left behind. The tools used to dig the grave were destroyed.
Navajo Burial Customs
In the past the Navajo people were not always buried in the ground. They would wash, then wrap the body of the deceased in a new blanket. Then they put the body on a brand new horse and guide the horse north of their village an appropriate distance. When they thought they went far enough away, they would put the body in a tree and kill the horse. The horse would then carry the body into the afterworld. Such a tree was never located close to a village.
Later, when burial became the norm, the Navajo never completely closed the coffin to allow the spirit to be released.
Mourning the Dead
According to traditional Navajo beliefs, birth, life and death are all part of an ongoing cycle. It is the natural course of things. Crying and outward demonstrations of grief are not usually seen when someone dies. This is not to be interpreted as a lack of caring; according to Navajo burial customs, the spirit’s journey to the next world can be interrupted if too much emotion is shown. It is believed that the spirit can attach itself to a place, an object or a person if this important part of the process is interrupted.
Navajo Signs and Fear of Death
The Navajo believe that if you hear an owl it may predict death. The cry of coyote is believed to be a certain sign of imminent evil or death.
Navajo people believed that ghosts of the dead can haunt the living. It was important not to leave footprints in or around the grave, because it was believed the departed spirit might follow the footprints back to the person who made them and attach itself to that person.
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 formulae, after which a dance ensued.