Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Navajo Burial Customs

     The Navajo custom is to leave the body where it dies, closing up the house or hogan or covering the body with stones or brush. In case the body is removed, it is taken to a cleft in the rocks and thrown in, and stones piled over. The person touching or carrying the body first takes off all his clothes and afterwards washes his body with water before putting them on or mingling with the living. When a body is removed from a house or hogan, the hogan is burned down, and the place in every case abandoned, as the belief is that the devil comes to the place of death and remains where a dead body is. Wild animals frequently (indeed, generally) get the bodies, and it is a very easy matter to pick up skulls and bones around old camping grounds, or where the dead are laid. In case it is not desirable to abandon a place, the sick person is left out in some lone spot protected by brush, where they are either abandoned to their fate or food brought to them until they die. This is done only when all hope is gone. I have found bodies thus left so well inclosed with brush that wild animals were unable to get at them; and one so left to die was revived by a cup of coffee from our house and is still living and well.
Lieut. George E. Ford, Third United States Cavalry, in a personal communication to the writer, corroborates the account given by Dr. Menard, as follows:
This tribe, numbering about 8,000 souls, occupy a reservation in the extreme northwestern corner of New Mexico and Northeastern Arizona. The funeral ceremonies of the Navajos are of the most simple character. They ascribe the death of an individual to the direct action of Chinde, or the devil, and believe that he remains in the vicinity of the dead. For this reason, as soon as a member of the tribe dies a shallow grave is dug within the hogan or dwelling by one of the near male relatives, and into this the corpse is unceremoniously tumbled by the relatives, who have previously protected themselves from the evil influence by smearing their naked bodies with tar from the piƱon tree. After the body has thus been disposed of, the hogan (composed of logs and branches of trees covered with earth) is pulled down over it and the place deserted. Should the deceased have no near relatives or was of no importance in the tribe, the formality of digging a grave is dispensed with, the hogan being simply leveled over the body. This carelessness does not appear to arise from want of natural affection for the dead, but fear of the evil influence of Chinde upon the surviving relatives causes them to avoid doing anything that might gain for them his ill-will. A Navajo would freeze sooner than make a fire of the logs of a fallen hogan, even though from all appearances it may have been years in that condition. There are no mourning observances other than smearing the forehead and under the eyes with tar, which is allowed to remain until worn off, and then not renewed. The deceased is apparently forgotten, as his name is never spoken by the survivors for fear of giving offense to Chinde.
J. L. Burchard, agent to the Round Valley Indians, of California, furnishes an account of burialsomewhat resembling that of the Navajos:
When I first came here the Indians would dig a round hole in the ground, draw up the knees of the deceased Indian, and wrap the body into as small a bulk as possible in blankets, tie them firmly with cords, place them in the grave, throw in beads, baskets, clothing, everything owned by the deceased, and often donating much extra; all gathered around the grave wailing most pitifully, tearing their faces with their nails till the blood would run down their cheeks, pull out their hair, and such other heathenish conduct. These burials were generally made under their thatch houses or very near thereto. The house where one died was always torn down, removed, rebuilt, or abandoned. The wailing, talks, &c., were in their own jargon; none else could understand, and they seemingly knew but little of its meaning (if there was any meaning in it); it simply seemed to be the promptings of grief, without sufficient intelligence to direct any ceremony; each seemed to act out his own impulse.