Native Americans' Beliefs on Burials and Souls

Native Americans rowing canoes below cemetery grounds.
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Although Native Americans represent a large and diverse group, they hold some common beliefs regarding burials and the proliferation of souls in the afterlife. A basic understanding of these beliefs can be helpful when attending a native funeral, or when providing comfort to a native friend or coworker mourning the loss of a loved one.

1 Afterlife

According to Native American beliefs, a spirit never dies. Rather, death is the beginning of a journey to another world. Prior to beginning this final journey, the deceased's spirit typically travels to the places it has known on earth. This earthly journey may take up to four days, sometimes longer. If the spirit does not have a good journey, the soul may return as a ghost to haunt the living. Ghost stories are common in Native American folklore, although ghosts are not necessarily viewed as malicious.

2 Funerals

Typically, the funeral takes place in a church or other spiritual place. For a few days before the funeral, friends and relatives may come and go, and everyone is welcome to participate in communal dining. According to traditional beliefs, this extended grieving period gives the spirit time to complete its earthly journey before continuing to the final afterlife. Children are included in all aspects of the funeral in order to teach them that death is an integral part of life to be accepted and learned. "Death and Dying From a Native American Spirituality Perspective" notes that funerals often involve a mixture of tribal customs and Christianity. The medicine man or native spiritual leader may lead the ritual, but there may also be an ordained Christian clergyman present. Finally, the deceased is not to be left alone before the funeral, as according to traditional beliefs, his spirit needs the comfort of having familiar people close by.

3 Burial Customs

Historically, Native American burial practices often differed based on the tribe and its geographical location. For example, some Plains and Pacific Northwest tribes practiced above-ground burials; tribes in the Mississippi River area built chambered mounds; and Native Americans in the Southwest and Southeast used earthenware jars for cremation. Many of these traditions have continued into the present day.

4 Internment

Old cemetery next to Navajo ruins in New Mexico.
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Today, the internment place is carefully chosen to reflect a place where the deceased will be comfortable. Native American cemeteries are often decorated with memorabilia to help the deceased on her journey. It is common to see food, jewelry, tools, weapons or personal possessions at the internment sites. These items are either buried with the deceased or placed on the grave.

Meg English has been an education professional for more than 25 years. She has taught elementary, middle and high school students in both inner-city and rural schools. She also publishes a weekly newspaper column titled "Education Matters." English holds a doctorate in educational administration from the University of South Dakota.