More than two million Native American Indians live in the United States and their death and funeral practices vary greatly depending on their tribe.
Overall, funeral services are a sacred event that honors the dead and brings the community together. A spiritual leader or medicine man will typically lead the ceremony and deceased ancestors are ‘invited’ to the ritual. Pipes may be smoked and/or herbs may be burned.
Death is a part of the circle of life
Death is a part of nature, and a journey to another world. Native Americans believe all creation, all nature, is sacred, and put their focus on living in harmony. Death is not a major focus as it is considered a great mystery, so most practices have to do with allowing death to simply happen. Some tribes will place items with the deceased that will aid them in the afterlife or their journey there. These can include food, weapons, tools and more. Some tribes would also sacrifice the deceased’s horse to be buried with them for this purpose. Many Native American tribes believe one soul died with the body while another would wander on, moving towards the afterlife.
Overall, reincarnation (both human and animal) and being able to speak to deceased relatives are accepted beliefs and practices. Certain tribes, similar to the custom of the Romani, will burn the possessions of the dead to prevent the return of the ghost. In the same way, the name of the deceased is not spoken directly as to not bring their spirit back. Native Americans want to support the spirit to finding the afterlife and therefore sometimes would leave the dead in a tree, raised platform, exposed to the elements to decompose, or perform a green burial. If a coffin is used, it may be left open to allow the spirit to escape. Burial customs are widely varied, however.
“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.” Source: Native American Death Rituals
A beautiful description and eye witness account of a Native American woman’s funeral were recorded by Gail Rubin. It was steeped with stories, traditions, love and community.