Witness to a Native American Funeral

Apr 3, 2011 | 0 comments

The funeral and burial for Tu Moonwalker in a pioneer cemetery located in the open high desert between Albuquerque and Santa Fe incorporated Native American rituals that left me with a profound appreciation for our physical existence and the eternal nature of our spirits.

Before describing this funeral, please know that I was invited to attend and write about this event. Before taking pictures, I asked for permission and was told pictures could be taken up to the time the body was lowered into the grave, and then after the grave was filled.

Tu Moonwalker, 61, was born of Apache and South American Native American parents. Tu’s obituary in the Santa Fe New Mexican listed her many accomplishments: artist (noted for work in basketry, leather, beads, and feathers), musician (collaborated on the lyrics to “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Dust in the Wind”), academic, and author (Business Revolution through Ancestral Wisdom).

She co-founded with her partner Láne Saán Moonwalker the Philosophy of Universal Beingness within the Whole, a spiritual system based on environmental consciousness and peaceful coexistence. Her community, family, and students worldwide honor her as a Grandmother of great wisdom and insight.

After she died at home near Moriarty on March 28, her body laid in state for four days. She had post-polio syndrome and had developed pneumonia. Dry ice helped preserve Tu’s body while Láne and others washed and dressed her and performed rituals leading up to the burial on April 2nd.

Hearse at Hyer Cemetery

Hearse at Hyer Cemetery

The Hyer Cemetery, the site for this burial, was  founded over 100 years ago, when New Mexico was still a territory.  The town has since disappeared, leaving the graves of pioneers in one part of the cemetery. The Hyer Cemetery Association was founded by people living in the area to continue using the deeded cemetery. It is a no-perpetual care burial ground under the wide-open sky, with natural earth and native plant life. The association allows green burial for people who live in the area. No liner or vault is required.

The grave had been dug with a backhoe the day before. The dug-up earth was piled over three feet high next to the grave. No effort had been made to cover the dirt, as happens in so many traditional cemeteries. Planks along and across the grave supported a low plywood platform, which supported the body during the ritual before burial. Several thick ropes were laid across the platform.

Tu's body rests over the grave

Tu’s body rests over the grave

A hearse driven by two young men in light-colored suits brought Tu’s body to the cemetery. Her body was wrapped in a colorful Pendelton blanket, resting on a “cradle,” a wooden frame designed for transportation and burial. Colorful sashes secured the blanket, and evergreen boughs were arranged around the cradle once it was positioned over the grave.

Láne made offerings to the four directions – East, South, West, and North – and to Mother Earth and Father Sky. She held up colorful bundles, spoke different words of prayer in each direction, then tucked the bundles around Tu’s body.

Friends offered attendees a cleansing liquid to rub on their hands and over their heads. They then brought around containers of corn meal and invited attendees to sprinkle corn meal on the body, after offering blessings to the four directions, earth and sky. The corn meal is to offer food and assure Tu a safe, prosperous journey to the spirit plane.

Lane makes offerings

Lane makes offerings before burial

Láne then told a wonderful story about the Moonwalker family, upstanding members of the Apache Nation, warriors of the Red Rose and the Rainbow Path. The story involved Tu’s father, Grandfather Carl Moonwalker, mother Mei Mah, and the entire family in a humorous encounter with a missionary woman who had come to their home on a cold winter night to convert them. She was not successful in her mission, and the family had some fun messing with her mind.

“Life is challenging – it’s just that way,” said Láne. “Our task it to have joy in spite of life’s challenges. With that story, we release Tu back to Mother Earth.”

Chanting of “Ah-hey anah, ah-hey anah, ah-hey anah, ah-hey oh” started with drumming and rattle as preparations were made to lower the body into the grave. The drum and rattle rhythm sped up as the body was lifted with the ropes, the plywood platform was slid off over the foot of the grave, then the body was lowered using the ropes. The chanting continued as Láne poured water on the body and attendees threw evergreen boughs and flowers into the grave.

Completing the burial

Completing the burial

Everyone was invited to help place earth on Tu’s body. This was not a mere ceremonial placement of a handful of dirt. People took turns shoveling until the grave was entirely filled. I pitched in, shoveling energetically for several minutes. It was dusty business, hard work that drives home the reality of burying the dead. While the burial was occurring, Tu’s followers went around and sprinkled corn meal on attendees, offering the blessing of all life.

Packages of Tu’s favorite foods – green grapes, a small orange, and dried fruits and nuts – were offered to all attendees. People were invited to take Tu’s personal belongings that had been brought in large baskets. Folks were encouraged to take more than one item. “Blue light special! We’ve got to clear it all out!” said Láne.

While the grave was being filled in, a woman donned a lime green jacket and matching hat started acting acting a little strange, dropping onto her knees next to the grave saying, “Bye, bye! I love you!” She came over to me at one point and said what she was doing was a native tradition that translated as “The art of making fun.”

When the grave was totally filled, the attendees sang “Puff the Magic Dragon” in Tu’s honor. A guest book was passed around for people to sign their names, and attendees received a program with Tu’s picture and a poem written by her father, Grandfather Carl Moonwalker.

Prayer of Beingness

May my feet walk upon Mother Earth with humbleness,
May my feet walk in Father Sun’s Light with humility,
And may I walk as One with The All.
May I always be with Her on my one side,
May I always be with Him on my other side,
And may I always be as One with The All.

Marker for Tu Moonwalker

Marker for Tu Moonwalker

A Good Goodbye