In 1990, the U.S. Census estimated the Native American Indian and Alaskan Native population to be about 1.9 million. Among these people are an enormous variety of beliefs and practices. As such, there is no one set of Native American funeral customs. Each tribe has it’s own unique set of traditions.
Although Native American nations do not share a single faith or common practice, some suggestions for proper behavior during sacred ceremonies can be derived from worldviews based on spiritual values. Centuries ahead of current eco-friendly trends, Native American burials are naturally green.
Participation in Native American funeral services means understanding the principles that guide their spirituality. These views hold that:
- Sacred services are both personal and communal experiences meant to shape the individual.
- Western dualities, such as heaven and hell, or supernatural and earthly, are not compatible with Native American views. Rather, all creation is seen as sacred.
- Because creation is complex, diverse religious explanations can exist harmoniously within one group, yet can all be sacred.
- Nature should be revered, not as simply evidence of a Creator, but sacred in itself.
- Specific areas or sites are important to sacred ceremonies, yet they are more often a homeland rather than a shrine or temple.
- The world holds the power of the Creator and we are a part of that power.
- All life is an equal part of creation. This view places human beings on the same level as insects or animals. Extra emphasis is placed on finding one’s proper place in the world.
- Unseen powers and mysteries are accepted and integrated into beliefs without explanation.
- An appreciation for complexity and diversity inhibits proselytizing. Likewise, outsiders who express curiosity about Native American traditions may be regarded with suspicion.
- Death is a journey to another world.
In some Native American funeral practices, relatives of the deceased are subject to strict rules in order to assist their departed in their journey. Personal items are often placed in the coffin. And, while Native beliefs hold that death is not the end of life, sympathy is welcome to help ease the loss of the loved one. Also, it is not uncommon for tribal funeral customs to integrate some Christian practices into their services.