How Did Native Americans Honor Their Dead?

Person wearing a traditional Native headdress looking at the sunrise with a bird flying overhead.

Every culture honors life events differently. Ceremonies for births, marriages, and deaths figure largely as significant events, and are symbolized using specific observances. In the Native American culture, rituals play an especially significant part of their beliefs and who they are. Understanding the various Native American funeral rites and how they honored their dead can help you support and comfort families grieving their lost loved one.

Over the years, the practices performed for Native American funerals have evolved. Death ceremonies to honor loved ones were both spiritually and personally significant. Many tribes believed that the passage of death was simply a journey to the spirit world, and the rituals were conducted to make that journey successful. As part of that unseen world, their loved ones and ancestors became part of the spiritual influences that impacted the lives of the living. Other tribes believed in two separate souls; one that died when the body died, and another that lived on, but may ultimately die.  

In most Native American funerals, the family was responsible for transporting, arranging, and burying. Making family an integral factor in the observance. Because burial customs varied extensively from tribe to tribe, the following examples explore some of the most common rites performed.

  • The ancient Hopewell tribes built lavishly furnished tombs.

  • Coastal tribes in the Northwest placed family members in canoes or in dedicated mortuary cabins.

  • Some tribes in Southern California practiced cremation.

  • Western Mountain tribes used caves or rock fissures for burial.

  • Like ancient Egyptians, South American tribes practiced embalming and mummification techniques.

Regardless of the method of burial, many Native American funerals included specific rites. These were designed to not only comfort the family by their tradition, but to also ease the loved one’s passage into the afterlife. In addition to songs, prayers, and a dedicated length of mourning time, some funerals included:

  • Restrictions on the activities bereaved family members may do, and what they may eat.

  • Leaving food and possessions either in, or near the gravesite.

  • Widows would often cut their hair as a sign of mourning.

  • Blackening of the face to honor the dead.

  • Rituals performed on the anniversary of the death.

Understanding the various methods used in ancient Native American funerals can help comfort families who are grieving today by providing a connection to the past.