Memorial Day means different things to different people. For some it is a time to remember loved ones who have passed away or veterans who lost their lives defending our freedoms. It was first enacted to honor those who served in the Civil War and later expanded to veterans of all wars.
For the Cherokee, the highest honor for their brave warriors was to be buried beneath their Council House in a large mound or in the floors of their houses. They wished to have them close for spiritual reasons plus, in many cases, it was dangerous to venture far from the protection of the villages and desecration by enemies was a real concern.
Bodies were usually placed in their pits with their heads facing to the west. Adults were often buried with shells, shell bowls, turtle-shell rattles and perforated animal bones. Shell gorgets, shell beads and Marginella shells were often found with babies.
Seven days of mourning were observed and during this time, everyone was to be pleasant and avoid feasting or over-eating. Death contaminated the house so all food and furniture was disposed of. The surivivors were unclean so a priest was invited to cleanse the survivors and their house. The belongings of the deceased were either buried with him or burned. The priest would also cleanse the hearth and start a new fire with embers from the sacred fire that always burned beneath the Council House and smoke his special tobacco to purify the house.
Once the house was cleansed, the priest took the family “to water” where he prayed for them while they immersed themselves in the river for each of the seven directions - east, west, north, south, up, down, and center. They then put on new clothes. Afterwards, they were given special tobacco to “enlighten their eyes” and sanctified necklaces to “comfort their hearts”. That night the family gathered in the Council House to receive well-wishers followed by a dance.
After the fifth day, the priest would kill a bird and cut a slice of meat from its right side. It was tossed into the fire and if juices popped toward the family, it was a bad omen that sons of the family might die soon. If it did not pop, it was a good omen.
On the seventh day, the family prepared a meal for the village at the Council House.
Widows remained unbathed and let their hair go until her friends believed she had mourned enough. Then they would go to her, bringing her new clothes, bathe her and fix her hair.
Whatever ritual we observe to honor our loved ones when they pass, Memorial Day gives us an opportunity to remember them.