Manataka American Indian Council
Native American Spirituality Brochure
Funeral homes should be sensitive to the fact that traditions of respect for the dead and honoring of family and ancestors vary from tribe to tribe. For example, among the Navajo (Dine), traditionalists shun proximity to the body and effects of the deceased, believing that the chindh (ghost) of the departed is the evil that is left behind while the good passes on. The body should be buried quickly but a wake and ceremonies could last for days. These ceremonies are highly traditional (called “sings”) and it’s unlikely the funeral director will have many duties to perform except to accommodate the family with quick burial.
On the other extreme, a family following other traditional practices may request that the body be held for a period before burial. Among the Lakota, for example, the Wacekiyapi, or Spirit Keeping Ceremony, can last four days.
Burial of the body or cremation may also follow detailed spiritual guidelines.
In some states, tribal groups have specific exemptions, including federal regulations on reservation lands.
Many funerary ceremonies will have no involvement or expectation of involvement by the funeral home, such as the “sings” mentioned, or, for example, honoring ceremonies by members of the Native American Church, and some of the ceremonies may be held up to a year later.
Ceremonies may also be easily adapted to common rites. For example, an Elder may preside over the ceremony and call others to assist; it may entail drumming and singing. It may be marked by a “giveaway,” a gifting feast in honor of the deceased. In some cases, personal items may be placed in the grave; prayer flags may be deposited at the site.
In any case, it should be kept in mind that as funeral practices vary among Christian, Muslim and Jew, so do they vary by Native lineage.
The most important function by funeral directors should be to be open, accessible and agreeable to bereaved Native families and sensitive to their needs, working in cooperation with Native spiritual leaders to ensure that traditions are honored, remains are respected and families are accommodated. Since this is primarily the function of funeral directors in other religious/cultural contexts, it should not be an onerous burden -- and, no doubt, if successfully conducted, should lead to further Native referrals.
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