Native American Funeral Traditions

Jul 7, 2010 | 30 comments

body rests over the grave

The funeral customs of Native Americans, known in Canada as First Nations people, involve the community in activities to honor the deceased and support the family. There are 564 tribes in America, approximately 1.9 million people.

Each tribe has their own variation on funeral customs, including use of Native languages, symbols, ceremonial objects and practice.  Native people consider the natural world a sacred place, with religious activities attached to specific places. Many also believe that birth, life and death are all part of an endless cycle.

You can read one description in this blog post: Witness to a Native American Funeral.

In a traditional Native American funeral, the family takes care of their own dead. They make all the arrangements, including transporting the body, and utilize green burial techniques. Family members wash and dress the body, and place it in a shroud or wooden casket. While the body may be honored for two to four days before burial, embalming is avoided. With modern technology, the body is preserved prior to burial with refrigeration using dry ice.

Marcia Racehorse-Robles, a Shoshone-Bannock Tribal member who runs Bannock Pride with her husband David, provides funeral education as well as oak, cedar and pine caskets to Native families. They live on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in Idaho. According to her, “A lot of this is common sense. Most families are caring for an elderly loved one at home and this is an extension of that, after their death.”

Among the Shoshone-Bannock, a tipi is set up for the body to lie in honor for several days with a campfire burning outside. The body is never left alone during this time. Women feed visitors, and children help while being taught the etiquette of entering the tipi and other traditional ways. Some families dress the deceased in full regalia and jewelry, with moccasins for their trip to the next world.

Spanish conquistadors and missionaries brought Catholicism to the 19 pueblos of New Mexico in the 1500s. These Native Americans added Catholicism to their traditional ceremonies and beliefs to create an interesting mix of rituals and patron saint feast days that vary by pueblo. Despite their embrace of Catholicism, many Pueblo people practice green burial techniques.

Every family and tribe has their own traditional way: prayers, songs, smudging, and items that may be buried with the deceased. A medicine man may perform a ceremony in the tribe’s native language. Many tribes restrict what bereaved relatives can eat and/or what kind of activities they can engage in after the death of a loved one. The length of time for mourning varies by tribe.

This information is included in A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die by Gail Rubin, author of The Family Plot Blog. The book, which includes funeral traditions for many major faiths, is available in print and ebook formats at, and at

For more details on Native American history, beliefs, and funeral practices, you may wish to consult this excellent resource: The Perfect Stranger’s Guide to Funerals and Grieving Practices: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People’s Religious Ceremonies (SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT).

Please post a comment to let me know if you find this information helpful, or if there are specific details you were looking for that this post did not address.

A Good Goodbye