Mortuary Customs

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The observance of the traditional customs at the burial of a Navaho devolves upon two or four mourners, of whom one is a near relative or clansman, while the others are taken from affiliated clans, such as that of the father, wife or husband of the deceased. In the early days one or more slaves, according to the wealth of the deceased, were forced to accompany the corpse, and were killed over the grave and left. In deference to the twelve chiefs of the tribe the number of mourners was set at twelve, though at present the usual number is four and less. The mourners appoint one of their number master of ceremonies, whose duty it is to guard over the exact observance of all traditional customs. He then directs one of the four to select a site for interment, which ordinarily is a crevice of a rock, or some secluded spot on the mountain side offering ample facilities for covering the corpse securely and quickly.

Previously to entering the hogan, or approaching the spot where the corpse lay, the mourners must disrobe to the breechcloth and untie their hair, to avoid contamination with a dead person. They then bathe the corpse thoroughly, and clothe it as for a festive occasion. The face is painted, the hair dressed, new garments and calicoes are purchased, belts, rings, bracelets, and other silver ornaments, are nicely polished, the beads are washed, buffalo robes, rugs, blankets, and any other valuable possession of the deceased, are made ready to be deposited in the grave with the corpse. This insures the deceased a kind reception in the nether world. The corpse is then transferred to the place of interment. The burden, wrapped in a blanket, was placed on the shoulders of two slaves, while at present it is carried by the mourners unless other arrangements can be made with outsiders, which is preferred in every instance. During the procession any chance traveler is hailed and warned of the presence of a corpse. One of the mourners usually gives the signal by presenting his back to the traveler and facing the procession, meanwhile beckoning with his hands over his shoulder to change the course of his journey. The desired effect is always obtained. The procession proceeds in silence. The mourners should not indulge in unnecessary conversation; they should not expectorate, nor turn in the direction traversed by the corpse, but complete a circle before proceeding. They must use the utmost care not to turn a stone on its side, but replace it immediately to its former position, as any offense against these traditions may be visited by subsequent and sudden death.

The position which the corpse should take in the grave is a mooted question. Some would have it that the corpse be laid on its side with the head in the north and facing west, whence the Navaho originated. Others place this origin in the north, wherefore the corpse faces north with the head in the east. Others, in recent times, pay no attention to such disputes. Once in position, the corpse is decorated and covered with beads, belts, silverware, blankets and rugs, over which a. generous layer of dirt, sticks and stone is built to protect it from disturbance by wild animals. Usually these services were performed by slaves, who were dispatched after completing their work, so that their master might enjoy their services in the world beyond. The burial completed, shovels, spades, mattocks, or any tool used in the work, are broken and thrown upon the grave where they are left and never touched again. The mourners then complete a circle and return to the family in skip and hop fashion, carefully avoiding all contact with brush or cactus, as this might delay the spirit in its flight to the other world. On reentering the hogan they bathe their bodies again, and now remain in mourning for four consecutive days with the family of the deceased. The family, which has been fasting since the demise is now allowed to take food and drink. This fast, by the way, extends even to babes, who are not given suck until after the return of the burial party. If this be unusually delayed wood ashes is applied to the face of the child, or rather to its forehead, before giving it suck, which will guard it against the malice of the dead. On the whole, a prompt and early burial is desirable, both to rid the family of the danger of contamination, as well as to terminate the fast as early as possible. The fast and mourning are not obligatory with the family member who has not been present at the death and has not viewed the corpse. Hence, it is permissible upon notice of a death not to approach the scene in order to evade this obligation.

}The four days of mourning begin with the night following the demise, or with the very night in which it occurred. In deference to the spirit of the deceased the mourners and family abstain from unnecessary conversation, from their usual sports, from travel and labor. They arise at dawn, and leave the hogan only when necessity compels them, but always in company of the master of ceremonies. Moreover, the sentry on guard, by the usual signal, keeps the death line, or the path from the hogan to the grave, open during these four days, in which the spirit of the deceased makes its journey to the lower worlds. But on the morning following the fourth night the mourners again bathe themselves, all members of the family imitating their example. After a brief mourning and wailing the ceremony is concluded, and the deceased is nothing more than a spirit, whose influence is to be dreaded. In most instances care is taken to remove the dying from the hogan. In the event, however. of a death within a hogan, the east side, or doorway, is closed, and an opening is made in the north side through which the corpse is carried out for burial. The hogan is then burnt and leveled to the ground, while the earthen pots used in cleaning the corpse, or cooking utensils, are broken there and then. Ordinarily, too, the finest riding animal in possession of the late owner is saddled near the grave and killed and left to rot. Formerly the animal was strangled and then killed, while at present it is shot. Saddles and blankets, too, were formerly left to decay, while at present the precaution is taken to break and cut them to pieces. Mourning was prohibited in the case of a warrior dying from the effects of wounds received in actual warfare, owing to the belief that death might overtake the mourners in a similar manner. The warrior retains his rank and prowess even in the nether worlds. The fallen foe is his slave, who must serve him beyond, hence they were buried near by, so that the spirits below might recognize them as such. On the other hand, weapons and the shield were scrupulously barred from the grave, as they might intimidate those spirits, whereas an unarmed warrior is readily enlisted in the rank and file of that army. Hence, knives, arrow-points, and everything suggestive of a weapon, is removed from the ornaments and barred from the grave even to-day. Good custom also required a lapse of ten to twenty days before a division of the property of the deceased was made. This, as well as some of the customs above described, are not always observed. Pgs. 453-456

An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navajo Language; 1910, The Franciscan Fathers.

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