Cherokee funerary rites: death, mourning and purification

When a father was convinced he was about to die, he called his children to gather about him and gave them advice and instructions concerning their future life, repeated the ancient traditions and reminded them about the Cherokee customs they should never forget.

When death was arriving, only the priest and adult relatives stayed with the dying person. Females wept, commencing at the moment of death a lamentation in which they sang over and over the name of the deceased, for as long as they could hold their breath. Male relatives put ashes on their heads and wrapped  themselves in worn clothing. A near relative closed the deceased's eyelids and washed the entire body with water or a purifying washing mix made by boiling willow root. In each town there was a priest whose task was to bury the death. The corpse was buried either in the floor directly under the place where the personhad died, under the hearth, outside near the house, or in the case of a distinguished chief, under the seat he had occupied in the town council house.

When burial was outside, the priest and an adult relative would accompany the deceased. Sometimes the corpse was laid alongside a large rock, and a wall about eighteen inches high was built on the other side of the corpse to enclose it. Then, a covering of wood or an arch of stone was laid over it as a roof and stones were heaped over the whole to create a small tomb. Other times, a corpse was covered by two overlapping wooden boxes, then piled over with stones. Some people were buried in graves that were dug in earth, and rocks were laid over the graves to keep animals from getting into them. The use of the mound was common in the Qualla phase ( ca. A.D. 1500 ). The fact to bury people in the house floors. suggests that it was prudent to inter quickly, that the family wished to have the deceased close for spiritual reasons, that the general climate of warfare made it dangerous to venture far without adequate protection, or that desecration by enemies was feared. All burials of the Pisgah phase (ca. 1000-1500 A.D.) were made in simple pits, side-chamber pits or central chamber pits. It seems that the side chamber form was reserved for infants and for male adults of high rank. Bodies were usually placed in pits in a loosely flexed position, with the heads oriented to the west. All of the adult skulls were artificially flattened at the forehead and back of the head. Grave goods found with adult remains include shells, shell bowls, turtle-shell rattles and perforated animal bones. Infant remains have with them shell gorgets, shell beads and Marginella shells.

During the 7 days of mourning, no one was to be angry, speak in a light manner and they only ate the lightest kind of food and liquid. Circumstances surrounding the death determined whether the expressions of grief were greater or lesser. When death occurred, everything in the house, including the surviving family became unclean. The personal belongings of the deceased were either buried with him or burned at the grave site. Food and furniture were smashed and thrown away. The priest was coming to ritually cleanse the house. He alone destroy everything that had been contaminated and clean the hearth. Then he made a new fire and put ion it his water-filled medicine pot. He put in the pot certain weed and later gave the tea to the family members who drank it and washed themselves with it. He also sprinkled the inside of the house with this tea. Then he smoked and further purified the house interior by building a fire with cedar boughs and a certain weed. When this was done, the priest took what remained of his purifying items away and hid them in a hollow tree or rock where they would not be found.

Finally, the priest took the family to a river, where he prayed for them and ordered them to immerse. They did this by entering the water and alternately facing east and west as they immersed 7 times. They abandoned the polluted clothes, and new clothes were put on. Afterwards, the priest's principal assistant sent a messenger to them with 2 gifts: a piece of tobacco to "enlighten their eyes", so they could bravely face the future and a strand of sanctified beads to comfort their hearts. He also asked them to take their seats in the town council house that night. The relatives always accepted the invitation and there were met by all the townspeople who in turn took them gently by the hand. Once everyone had done this, the mourners either returned home or stayed to watch while t he other people danced a solemn dance.

On the fifth morning after the fifth day after death, family members gathered around the priest, and he took a bird that had been killed with an arrow, plucked off some of its feathers and cut from the right side of the breast a small piece of meat. After praying, he put the meat on the fire. If it popped one or more times, throwing small pieces towards the family, sons in the family would soon die. If it did not pop at all, the sons were considered safe. Mourning continued for another two days. On those two mornings, the entire company of mourners arose at daybreak and after going to to immersion in water, went to the grave site. The local women set up a wailing, and neighboring women joined in. The Chief Priest of the town sent out hunters to being in meat for the mourning family. The family and relatives prepared food and on the seventh night took it to the council house, where a community feats of consolation was held. Priests were usually paid for their services in clothing.

When the deceased was a husband, the widow was expected to remain single for a long time, and for as much of ten months to let her hair hang loose and uncared for. She neither washed her body nor paid any attention to herself and her clothed were thrown carelessly on. When her friends believed she had mourned enough, they went to her, combed and dressed her hair and changed her garments.

A far as the afterlife concerns, views differed according to what individual Cherokees believed about the powers who created and ruled the earth. Worshippers of the sun believed that at death the soul assumed different appearances and at first lingered about the place where the person had died for as long as the time as the person had lived there. The soul went there to its prior place of residence and remained there for a similar time. This continued until the deceased ha moved to its birthplace when, after remaining for as long a time as it had lived there, it took its final leave - either into nonexistence o to a place far away in the west where the deceased was always miserable because it was away from its natural home.

Others believed that at death the soul entered a mystical but living body that was larger or smaller than its own. Whatever the case, the body the soul entered grew smaller each year, until at last it vanished and ceased to be. This group also believed that adulterers and women who destroyed their infants would in some way after death be punished more than other persons.

Those Cherokees who prayed only to the three Divine Beings above believed that all who were free from certain sins and vices would at death go to be with those beings and would dwell with them forever in a place that would always be pleasant and light. But people with big sins would go to the Place of Bad Spirits, where they would always scream in torment.


Information extracted from the book "The Cherokee People,

The Story of the Cherokee from Earliest Origins to Contemporary Times" by Thomas E. Mails.

It is a magnificent piece of historical reconstruction, extensively and beautifully illustrated,

published by Marlowe & Company, NY.

Images taken from "The Cherokee Indian Nation, a troubled history" edited by Duane H. King

From top to bottom: stone vault burial of an adult at the Peachtree Mound. NC, (Smithsonian Institution),

side chamber burial of an infant at the Warren Wilson site and Central chamber burial of an adult male

at the Warren Wilson site ( Research Laboratories of Anthropology, University of North Carolina)