The Intricacies of Native American Funeral Traditions

Categories: American Culture

At some point in our lives, we all come to realize that death is an undeniable facet of life. Within the vast tapestry of cultural diversity, each unique group of people contributes its own distinctive lifestyles and traditions. The rituals associated with death and burial, in particular, offer a fascinating glimpse into the diverse practices of different cultures. A striking example of such diversity lies in the burial rituals of Native American communities.

Leslie Marmon Silko's narrative, "The Man to Send Rain Clouds," provides a poignant portrayal of a funeral service conducted by a Native American Pueblo family.

While some may perceive the ceremony as lacking in overt emotion and reverence, it sheds light on a ritual that is deeply ingrained in Native American communities. Moreover, the narrative hints at an underlying conflict, as the characters navigate their traditions while incorporating an external religious figure into the ceremony.

The story unfolds with the death of an elderly man, setting the stage for the family's preparation of his journey into the afterlife.

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A feather is intricately tied into the old man's hair, his face adorned with a palette of blue, yellow, green, and white paint. Pinches of cornmeal and pollen are ceremoniously tossed into the wind, and his body is reverently wrapped in a red blanket before being transported. According to Gary F. Santillanes' insightful piece, "Releasing the Spirit: A Lesson in Native American Funeral Rituals," Pueblo Indians prefer caring for their deceased without the involvement of a funeral director. The family typically transports the departed in their truck, placing them on the floor facing east to west on a native blanket.

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Depending on the deceased's stature in the tribe, traditional face painting may be performed, accompanied by powdery substances made of corn. Traditional prayers and dances are integral aspects of this sacred ritual (www.umn.du).

The prayer feather tied to the old man's hair serves a crucial purpose—it signifies a connection with the spiritual realm, ensuring his recognition by ancestors who have traversed the same path. The colors used in face painting symbolize the earth, sky, sun, and water. The ritualistic sprinkling of cornmeal and water is believed to provide nourishment for the departed on their journey to the next world. The symbolic pollen represents the earth's renewal, a cyclical process initiated by rainclouds sent back by the spirit of the deceased.

Silko frequently references the "red blanket" enveloping the old man for burial (149). Significantly, Native American communities often leave a cord hanging from the blanket, thought to provide a conduit for the spirit's release into the afterlife. Across diverse Native American cultures, a shared belief in life after death prevails, though the specific means of traversing into the next life may vary among tribes.

Their traditional belief system views death as an inherent part of a natural cycle, wherein spirits oscillate between this world and the spirit world. This cyclical journey serves to bring renewal and new life upon their return. Many consider this transition an honor, a privilege that ensures the survival of their people. Neglecting tribal rituals, however, is believed to result in death and sickness, as the spirit returns without blessings, unable to enter the other world. "Who Were The Anasazi?" published by The Bureau of Land Management, establishes a connection between religious concepts and seasonal tasks like farming and hunting, shedding light on the belief that the old man could send back rain clouds and the cultural belief in spirits returning to life ( Tribal ceremonies often feature elaborate and colorful dances, and in modern times, some rituals allow outsiders to witness these sacred events.

Throughout the burial process, practices familiar to many are interwoven with unique customs. Deceased bodies are dressed in finery, accompanied by possessions placed beside them. The Native American community prepares food for the bereaved families, and community members visit to pay their respects. Occasionally, religious services are incorporated into the ceremony, held in churches on their native land, where their native religious beliefs with their own gods are honored (www.umn.du). Native American religious specialists draw wisdom from inherited traditions, with priests believed to possess a unique communication link with the spirits through ceremony and prayer (

The Native American culture often expresses reluctance towards external religious rituals, such as last rites, being included in their ceremonies. This reluctance is rooted in the historical invasion of Catholics upon their land and the belief that such external influences may hinder the smooth transition into the afterlife, potentially condemning the soul of the deceased.

Pallbearers play a crucial role in transporting bodies to the grave site. However, in several tribes, a strict practice dictates that no one else is allowed to touch the body or the grave. Following the burial, pallbearers must undergo a cleansing ritual, highlighting the sanctity attributed to these proceedings. Regardless of cultural heritage, the common thread uniting us all is the desire to treat our loved ones with respect, tradition, and dignity during their final journey.

While understanding the practices of other cultures may pose challenges, it does not diminish the spiritual or moral significance of their burial methods. Each culture approaches death with its unique lens, and we, as individuals, are united by the universal belief in something beyond our current existence. Our need to ensure the proper preparation of our loved ones for their journey persists, guided by the traditions that shape our beliefs. The divergence lies not in this shared sentiment but in the varied methods we believe will facilitate a smooth transition into the afterlife.

Undoubtedly, family cohesion and socioeconomic status play pivotal roles in the overall success of this transition. However, with a robust support system, even those in disadvantaged communities can navigate the challenges of bidding farewell to their loved ones with the respect and dignity they deserve.

In conclusion, the intricacies of Native American funeral customs reflect a profound connection between the spiritual and earthly realms. The vibrant tapestry of rituals, from face painting to the symbolic use of feathers and blankets, weaves a story of honoring the departed and ensuring a seamless transition into the afterlife. As we explore these diverse traditions, it becomes evident that beneath the surface differences, a universal thread of reverence for life and death unites us all.

Updated: Jan 11, 2024
Cite this page

The Intricacies of Native American Funeral Traditions. (2016, Dec 22). Retrieved from

The Intricacies of Native American Funeral Traditions essay
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