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The Navajo are an aboriginal people of North America closely linked to the Apaches. They are very religious.

Death has to be avoided as long as possible and accepted when it becomes inevitable. That experience is not a punishment, but the contrary, a « time of celebration », a rebirth, an authentic life after life.

They hold back their tears because the emotions may block the deceased’s spirit on his way to the afterlife.

Navajos: scene of life

The Navajo consider that a person possesses at least two souls:

The first, free of attachment, is similar to the «wind breath» and reaches the spirit world just after death. That is called the soul, which can leave the body during sleep and illness, and continues to live after death in the underworld, in the cosmos, or may decide to reincarnate.

The second has the shape of a shadow, is attached to the body, and continues to keep its individuality for a certain period.

Frequently the dying and the sick in a terminal phase are placed in a small mud hut to avoid the destruction of the family home (influence received by the northern Athabaskan tribes).

The death of young children and elders is considered natural, but the mortuary practices are not identical.
For the rest, death is considered the result of external interference indirectly caused by witchcraft. They bring back home those killed in the war.

Funeral ceremony

They wash and dress the body, then wrap it in a new blanket. Sometimes the face is coated with paint. The men in charge of funeral preparation rub their bodies with ashes. They perform this action to protect the population from evil spirits since the Navajo are afraid to be haunted by the spirits.

The next phase of the process is similar to the one practiced by the Kiowa and Lipan Apaches: the body is taken out from the dwelling from a different side that the one used by the living, the north for the deceased, the east facing the sunrise for the living. The corpse is buried quickly during the day, at some distance from the houses, to cut all connection with the group.

Burial in traditional house

They put the body on a horse, and when they think they are far enough, they bury it and kill the horse, which is supposed to carry the body in the afterlife.

Navajos Family

The burial ceremony is carried out by 3-4 men not belonging to the family. The family has to stay away. Within the Navajo and Tlingit tribes, sometimes they may kill a slave at his master’s funeral.

All traces of the deceased are erased: they burn his home and possessions.

The family may even move to avoid living in the same place where the soul lived before his death.
Inside other communities, they make some modifications: the door and the smoke hole are moved to a different place to « deceive » the evil spirit of the deceased if he may want to return.

In the past, the deceased was laid on a tree far from the village.

Upon death, the Navajo practice a kind of initiation ritual consisting of a fast and complete solitude for three to four days.

During that period they may experience visions of their past, present and future lives. At the end of this period, they practice a purification rite.

Some superstitions:
The owl cry is an omen of death.
The coyote cry is considered a sign of imminent evil or death.
The wicked people are transformed into coyotes after death.

Burial in the tree
Ceremonial dress

Sources :

David M. Brugge, A Comparative Study of Navajo Mortuary Practices


Seguin, Sur les rites funéraires chez les Indiens de l’Améri­que du Sud

Marcel Mauss, La religion et les origines du droit pénal d’après un livre récent : M. R. Steinmetz

Ross Enochs, The Franciscan Mission to the Navajos: Mission Method and Indigenous Religion, 1898-1940


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Spiritualité Autochtone