Cherokee Nation offers burial assistance for needy families


Last Updated: 10 years

When a loved one dies, many times paying funeral bills can be a financial burden. However, that burden can be lifted or eased by the Cherokee Nation’s Burial Assistance Program, which helps citizens of federally recognized tribes pay funeral expenses.


Family Assistance Director Jerry Snell said the tribe has provided part of the program’s funding for approximately 15 years with the Bureau of Indian Affairs providing the rest.

“The Cherokee Nation’s administered the Burial Assistance Program for years and years,” he said. “It’s funded through the BIA. At least the greater portion of it is funded by the BIA.”

The BIA and Cherokee Nation provide the program for tribal citizens who live at poverty levels, which means they have no money or resources available to pay towards the burial or cremation.

“It’s not an entitlement program,” he said. “Simply put, by virtue of being a Cherokee doesn’t entitle you the benefits of the Burial Assistance Program.”

To receive help, the deceased must be a citizen of a federally recognized tribe with a tribal citizenship card. The deceased also must have a Social Security card and proof of income for the past year from the deceased or his/her immediate family such as pay stubs, proof of all available resources such as checking/savings account statement. The deceased must also have lived in tribe’s jurisdiction for the past six months.

Also, the remaining family members must select a funeral home that has an active burial agreement with the Cherokee Nation, and the deceased and his/her immediate family must not have an income greater than 150 percent of the National Poverty Level standards for the past 12 months. Also, if family members have resources of $2,500 for burial they are not eligible for assistance. Resources include banking accounts, savings accounts, life insurance and veteran’s benefits.

“By the time you incorporate income eligibility and resource eligibility that rules out all individuals who for practical reasons are not impoverished,” Snell said. “As a matter of fact, we average about 225 to 230 burials a year,” he said. “Needless to say, that’s a small number compared to the overall number or tribal citizens that we probably lose in the year’s time.”

The tribe offers assistance for approximately 60 funeral homes throughout its jurisdiction, as well as in Siloam Springs, Ark., and Coffeyville, Kan.

“We have contracts with all of the funeral homes in northeastern Oklahoma,” Snell said. “There may be a funeral home or two that we don’t have contracts with.”

Two options are offered through the program. Option 1 is only available to Cherokee Nation citizens and provides a burial notice in the deceased’s local paper, one death certificate, a memorial package, a cloth covered wooden casket, concrete outer container, tent and cemetery set up and a professional service provided by the funeral home.

The BIA and Cherokee Nation pay this option in full, eliminating the financial burden for the family. The BIA provides $2,500 and the Cherokee Nation provides $500.

Option 2 is available to citizens of other federally recognized tribes, and in some cases, Cherokee Nation citizens. The option allows the family to choose any service the funeral home provides. The BIA will provide a one-time, maximum amount of $2,400 towards the funeral service. The family will have to pay the remaining balance.

For more information, call 918-453-5000, ext. 6266 or email