Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Death of a Cherokee

The way death and burial is treated by other cultures can be very different from how we are accustomed.  The following description of the ancient Cherokee’s traditional funeral has been taken from Thomas E. Mails’ summation of an interview with John Howard Payne by G. Hicks.

 “When a father, especially an aged one, was convinced he was about to die, he called his children to gather about him.  He told them about his situation, gave them advice and instruction concerning their future life, repeated the ancient traditions and reminded them about the Cherokee customs they should never forget.

Peachtree Mound
“When death was at hand, all of the children were sent away, and only the priest and the adult relatives spent time with the dying person. Females wept exceedingly, commencing at the moment of death a most doleful lamentation in which they sang over and over, with only brief pauses, the name of the deceased for as long as they could hold their breath. Male relatives seldom wept, but put ashes on their heads and wrapped themselves in worn clothing.  During the seven days of mourning, no one was to be angry, speak in a light or trifling manner, or drink anything but the lightest kind of food and liquid. Circumstances surrounding the death determined whether the expressions of grief were greater or lesser.   Sometimes mourners seemed entirely inconsolable and gave the impression they would weep all the way to their own graves.

“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 dead.  He came soon after death to the house where the corpse was and usually buried it either in the floor directly under the place where the person had 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.  In instances when burial was outside, the priest, followed by an adult relative of the deceised, carried the body to its place of internment.   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 what was in essence 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 the earth, and rocks were laid over the graves to keep animals from getting into them.

“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.  As soon as the corpse was buried, a priest was sent for to ritually cleanse the house.  He entered the house alone to destroy everything that had been contaminated, and to thoroughtly clean the hearth.  He then kindled a new fire and put on it his water-filled medicine pot that he used for purifications.  He put in the pot a certain weed and later gave the tea he brewed to the family members, who drank it and washed themselves all over with it.  He also sprinkled the inside of the house with the 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 cleft where they would not be found.

“Finally, the priest took the defiled family members to a river or creek, where on the bank he prayed for them and then ordered them to immerse. They did this by entering the water and alternately facing east and west as they immersed seven times. They either put away their polluted garments before going into the water, or while in the water let them loose to drif away and take their uncleanness with them.  When the people left the water, new clothing was put on, so that when they returned to their house the mourners were entirely clean.  Shortly thereafter,  the priest's principal assistant sent a messenger to them with two gifts -- a piece of tobacco that would "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 bereaved always accepted this kind invitation, and when they went to the council house they were met by all the townspeople, who in turn took them gently and understandingly by the hand. Once everyone had done this, the mourners either returned home or stayed to watch while the other people danced a solemn dance.

“On the morning of the fifth day after death, while family members gathered around him, the priest 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 water to immerse, went to the grave site. There the local women set up a most bitter wailing of the kind already described, and neighboring women often joined in. During this time the Chief Priest of the town sent out hunters to bring in meat for the mourning family. With this assistance, the family, with the help of relatives, prepared food and on the seventh night took it to the council house, where a community feast of consolation was held.”

“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.”

Burial in the earth was, for the Cherokee, pay back to the plants and animals that had provided vital nourishment in life.  Animals and man eat plants for nourishment.  Therefore, when a man dies, he should be buried to provide nourishment for plants!


  1. Hi Mr. Miller! I am so glad that I was able to find this blog post. It was able to find a lot of information for a paper I am writing. Could you share some of your sources so I might be able to learn more? Thank you!

  2. Two great sources are James Mooney and Thomas Mails.