Native American Funeral Traditions

Posted: 23/02/2018

Native American funeral traditions differ widely. This is because Native Americans are not in fact, one homogenous entity. Across the USA over 562 recognised tribes, among the 1.9 million Native Americans in the USA. As a result, this means that there are various tribal funeral rituals and beliefs, as well as different practices, symbols, languages and even ceremonial objects.

Native American funeral beliefs

Funeral beliefs for Native Americans do not share the same religious foundation as Islam or Christianity. Beliefs are centred on Native American culture, passed down through the generations rather than any particular set of rules or beliefs when it comes to funerals.

The afterlife

Whilst each tribe typically has its own traditions when it comes to funerals, there can be overlap between groups on some beliefs. For example, the notion that the spirit of a person continues to live even after death is common within Native American culture. However, whilst it is thought there is an afterlife, there is no conception of heaven or hell. This is partly to do with their spirituality and the belief that all creation is sacred.

In terms of Native American history when it comes to afterlife beliefs, it differs amongst tribes once again. Certain tribes in the Rhode Island and Massachusetts area many years ago believed that the afterlife was subject to geographical location. It was thought the afterlife was in the southwest direction, where ancestors would welcome the souls of the deceased. Others believed that it was possible for those in the afterlife to come and visit the living.

Native American funeral service

Across various Native American tribes, it is commonplace that it is the family of the deceased who looks after the body and arranges all aspects of the funeral. This includes:

  • The transportation of the body
  • Getting the body ready for the funeral service
  • Burying the body

Family members will usually wash and dress the body ready for the funeral service and then place the deceased in a wooden casket or shroud. Embalming is avoided at all costs when it comes to preserving the body for a funeral in Native American culture. Instead, it is common for dry ice to be used.

The burial

Whilst environmentally friendly funerals have been gaining popularity across the world in recent years, it is something that Native Americans have done for centuries. They tend to have ‘green funerals’,  using natural materials.

Death rituals

Again, death rituals depend on the Native American tribe, but generally speaking the rituals across groups will tend to focus on providing items to the spirit of the dead in order to make sure their safe transition into the afterlife. For example, people may decide to leave food offerings, tools and weapons, valuable items, or jewellery for the deceased.

In the past, it was common for certain Native American tribes to try and guide the spirit to the afterlife through natural decomposition. Some tribes believed that by letting the body decompose naturally by a tree would allow the spirit to escape.

When it came to the death of a child, some Native Americans, such as the Chippewa tribe would create a doll made from the hair of the dead child. This would then be carried by the mother for at least a year in order to symbolise her grief.

For other tribes, colour has an important role in death rituals. Painting the deceased’s face with red, the colour of life in Native American culture is sometimes carried out, or feathers are tied around the head of the deceased.

Others decide to burn special herbs (such as sage) to pay respects to the dead. It may be smoked in a ceremonial pipe by the spiritual leader of the tribe.

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A Native American ceremonial pipe. Source: Ancient Nations.

For the Navajo, tribe rituals are particularly important. It is common for the name of the person who has passed away to not be mentioned at all for at least a year. This is due to a superstition that to say the dead person’s name will return the spirit from the afterlife.

Other tribes, would choose to relocate entirely. The Seminole tribe would place the body in a chickee (which was a fairly small open-sided building). After having done this, the entire tribe would relocate.