Rituals and Traditions

I’m fascinated by rituals. I don’t always adopt them or participate in them, but I find them so intriguing: why do they do that? why do they say those words in that order every time? why do they stand and then sit and then stand again? why are those people kneeling? why are they putting their food into that plastic bag?

My sister Penny has been telling me about a Native American funeral she attended recently. Understand, neither of us has experienced this ritual before, so her description and my understanding are both pretty naive. But oh, the deep beauty and utility of it.  I can’t really fit it all together, so I will share here a few of the things I remember from Penny’s rendition.

This is sacred. I know that. If your tradition is Native American, I thank you for allowing me to look into your windows for a moment, to take a single snapshot of something I can’t possibly fully understand. Please forgive me in advance for misinterpreting anything, and please add your own story and knowledge and insight to ours.

Here’s what I heard:

The Spiritual Leader will explain to the community what must happen, what we need to do. We must not say her name for four days, lest she turn around. She has to go home. We will not cry out, lest she turn around to help us and get stuck here. She needs to go home. In her casket are all the items she will need for her spiritual journey: food, a change of clothes, some other things.

The Leader will sing out to tell us, to tell her? what she needs to do on her journey: she will visit four wigwams, and then she will go home. We are to light a small fire at her gravesite every morning and every evening, so when she comes out of the wigwam and sees it, she will know it is time to go home. If we don’t, then when the sun climbs high into the sky, she will see that light, and she will know, but then she will be late; she will have to run. We need to help her.

We will prepare food and we will eat. If we do not eat, she will not have strength for her journey. We will take a portion from our plates and put it in a bag for her, for her journey. People in the community will prepare the food; the mother is crying, the sister is crying, we must cook for them.

We will wait in line to say goodbye. We will pass by and see her, and we will greet and comfort her family. We will touch her, we may kiss her, and we will wash ourselves after in cedar water. The family will go last so, you know, they can take their time, without worrying about others in line behind them.

We will sing and beat drums and dance. We will celebrate this life, and send her along her way. She has to go home.


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