Navajo burial customs reflect the ancient traditions that death itself is not something to be feared. Instead, these people feared that the deceased would return to visit the living.
A Navajo Legend About Death
A Navajo legend explains why death exists in the world: One day, the Navajo people placed an animal hide in water. If it did not sink, then no one would ever die. However, if the hide sank into the water, then death would be part of life.
The Navajo did not watch the hide, but turned away from it instead. While their backs were turned, a coyote threw some rocks on top of the hide. Of course, this made it sink down into the water. The coyote's reason was that if no one ever died, there would come a point at which there wouldn't be any more land on which the people would live. This is the reason death comes for all of us eventually.
Navajo Burial Customs and Fear of the Dead
Navajo people believe that when someone dies, they go to the underworld. Certain precautions must be taken during the burial process to ensure that they don't return to the world of the living. These visits are to be avoided at all costs, and for this reason, Navajos are very reluctant to look at a dead body. Contact with the body is limited to only a few individuals.
Dying at Home
When death was imminent, the person was taken to a separate place until he or she died. (If a person passes away in their own home, then the dwelling is torn down and destroyed.) Family members and the medicine man stayed with the person until close to the end. Shortly before death, everyone except for one or two individuals leave. Those who remain would be the closest relatives of the terminal person, and the most willing to expose themselves to evil spirits.
Preparing the Body for Burial
After death occurs, two men are entrusted with preparing the body for burial. They do not wear clothing during this process, they only wear their moccasins. Before starting the process, they smear ash all over their bodies. It is thought that the ash will protect them from evil spirits.
Before burial, the body is thoroughly washed and dressed. It was believed that if the burial was not handled in the proper fashion, the person's spirit would return to his or her former home.
Two other men dig the grave while the body is being prepared for burial. The funeral is held as soon as possible; more than likely it will be held the next day. These four men are the only ones present at the burial.
The deceased person's belongings are loaded onto a horse and brought to the grave site, led by one of the four mourners. Two others carry the body on their shoulders to the area. The fourth man warns those he meets en route that they may want to stay away from the area.
Once the body is interned, great care is taken to ensure that no footprints are left behind. The tools used to dig the grave are destroyed.
Mourning the Dead
According to traditional Navajo beliefs, birth, life and death are all part of an ongoing cycle. It is the natural course of things. Crying and outward demonstrations of grief are not usually seen when someone dies. This is not to be interpreted as a lack of caring; according to Navajo burial customs, the spirit's journey to the next world can be interrupted if too much emotion is shown. It is believed that the spirit can attach itself to a place, an object or a person if this important part of the process is interrupted.