At some point in our lives, we all come to realize that death is a part of life. Cultural diversity provides a wide variety of lifestyles and traditions for each of the unique groups of people in our world. Within these different cultures, the rituals associated with death and burial can also be uniquely diverse. Many consider ritualistic traditions that differ from their own to be somewhat strange and often perceive them as unnatural. A prime example would be the burial rituals of the Native American people.
Leslie Marmon Silko’s story entitled The Man to Send Rain Clouds describes a funeral service carried out by a Native American Pueblo family. Though many perceive the funeral service narrated in this story to be lacking in emotion and also lacking respect for the passing of their loved one, it portrays a ceremony that is quite common for the Native American communities. There is also a hint of conflict occurring between the characters in the story that are carrying out their traditions while including an outside religious figure in the ceremony.
The death of an old man sets the stage for this story and tells of the way his family goes about preparing him for his journey into the afterlife. A feather is tied into the old man’s hair, his face was painted with blue, yellow, green and white paint, pinches of corn meal and pollen were tossed into the wind and finally his body was wrapped in a red blanket prior to being transported. According to Releasing the Spirit: A Lesson in Native American Funeral Rituals by Gary F.
Santillanes, “Pueblo Indians care for their own dead with no funeral director involved. The family will take the deceased, usually in their truck, back to the home of the deceased and place him or her on the floor facing east to west, on a native blanket. Depending on the deceased’s stature in the tribe, his face may be painted in the traditional nature. A powdery substance is placed on the face of all the dead usually made of corn, traditional prayers and maybe dances are completed” (www. umn. du).
The feather tied to his hair is a prayer feather and the painting of the face is to ensure that he will be recognized in the next world by his ancestors who have crossed over before him. The colors are representative of the earth, sky, sun and water. The sprinkling of corn meal and water are said to provide the dead with nourishment on their journey to the next world. The pollen is representative of the earth’s renewal from the rainclouds that will be sent back by the spirit of the deceased.
Silko frequently refers to a “red blanket” that the old man is wrapped in for burial (149). The Native American people often leave a cord hanging from the blanket which wraps the body of the deceased and is thought to provide a way for the spirit to be released into the afterlife. All Native American cultures have strong beliefs in life after death, although the means of reaching the next life may vary from tribe to tribe.
They traditionally believe that death is a part of a natural cycle in which their spirits are transported back and forth between this world and the spirit world so that they can bring renewal and new life when they return. Most consider this transition to be an honor or privilege since it will ensure the survival of their people. In Native American culture, it is believed that neglect of tribal rituals can result in death and sickness, because the spirit returns without blessings, having been unable to enter the other world. According to Who Were The Anasazi?
Published by The Bureau of Land Management, “religious concepts and events were associated with seasonal tasks like farming (in spring and summer) and hunting (in fall and winter)” which would be a plausible explanation for the belief that the old man could send back rain clouds and also for cultural beliefs in the spirits returning to life (http://www. blm. gov/co/st/en/fo/ahc). Many tribes perform ceremonies which can include elaborate and colorful tribal dances. Modern rituals sometimes allow for outsiders to watch the ceremonies.
During the burial process there are also practices that are more common to what many people consider to be normal. Bodies are dressed in nice clothing and some of their possessions are often placed next to them. The Native American people prepare food to be given to the families of the dead, members of the community visit to pay their respect to the deceased and at times a religious service is included. When these religious services are conducted, “they are held in churches on their native land” where “they have their native religious beliefs with their own gods” (www. umn. du). Native American “religious specialists draw wisdom from inherited traditions.
Priests bring rain through ceremony and prayer. They are thought to have a special level of communication with the spirits” (www. umn. edu). The Native American culture often frowns upon outside religious rituals such as last rites being included in the ceremonies. This is thought to be partly because of the controversy surrounding the invasion of Catholics upon their land and partly because they believe that it will impair the transition into the afterlife and condemn the soul of the deceased.
Pallbearers are employed to transport the bodies to the grave site, but in several tribes, no one else is allowed to touch the body or the grave. The pallbearers must eventually go through a cleansing ritual following the burial. Regardless of our cultural heritage, treating our loved ones with respect, tradition and dignity is usually our primary concern. Though we may not understand the practices of other cultures, it does not mean that methods by which burials are conducted are any less spiritual or correct.
We all tend to believe in our own gods and the fact that there will be something else waiting for us when we pass from the world in which we exist. We all feel the need to make sure that our loved ones are properly prepared for their journey by whatever means our traditions dictate. The only differences seem to be the methods in which we believe will help us make that transition. There is no doubt that family cohesion and socioeconomic status play an important role in the overall success of the transition but with the proper support system, even those in disadvantaged communities can make the best of a bad situation.