Death is one of the few human experiences that’s truly universal. All people die.
Because of this, there are virtually no cultures (both existing cultures and no longer existing ones) that don’t have some beliefs about death.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Do Traditional Navajo People View Death?
- What Do the Navajo Believe About the Afterlife?
- How Do the Navajo Bury the Dead?
- What Happens During a Navajo Funeral?
- How Do the Navajo Memorialize or Venerate the Deceased?
Learning about death in different cultures can provide insights into the overall nature and practices of a culture. For instance, maybe you want to learn about the beliefs of the traditional Navajo people.
This is a complicated subject. Entire books cover it. However, this basic guide to Navajo beliefs about death will introduce you to the topic. It covers whether the Navajo believed in an afterlife, how they buried their dead, and more.
How Do Traditional Navajo People View Death?
Traditional Navajos had a somewhat unique relationship with death. On the one hand, they accepted death as a natural part of being a living being.
However, the Navajos had many fears about the dead themselves. They also had fears about death-related omens or signs. For example, hearing an owl hoot was something a Navajo might be afraid of, as it was thought to be a sign that a death was imminent. This blog will explain those fears, as well as steps the Navajos would take to protect themselves accordingly.
What Do the Navajo Believe About the Afterlife?
Traditional Navajo beliefs about death and the afterlife involve the belief in a “chindi.” In Navajo culture, a chindi is a spirit that remains after a person has died.
However, that spirit does not embody every aspect of a person’s soul or identity. Instead, it consists solely of all the negative aspects of them. It’s a malevolent spirit that traditional Navajos believed could spread illness or cause harm. Additionally, Navajos thought that seeing a ghost of any kind could be a sign of an upcoming disaster.
To avoid becoming a chindi’s victim, Navajos would limit contact with the dead, stay away from enclosed places where someone had died, and even limit speaking about the dead. If a person did become sick in a way that indicated a chindi was to blame, Navajos would gather at the site the chindi supposedly haunted and perform rituals meant to restore balance to the world of the living.
That said, a chindi was not all that remained of a person’s soul after they died in traditional Navajo beliefs about death. It was more of a separate entity representing the imbalanced qualities of a person. The remainder of their soul traveled to an underworld or afterlife.
How Do the Navajo Bury the Dead?
The way in which traditional Navajos would handle a body after death changed and developed over time. However, this overview covers the basics of their rituals.
Typically, when someone died in the Navajo culture, others would perform a traditional cleaning of the body. Then, two, three, or up to four men wearing nothing but moccasins would clothe the body in a coverlet. They might also enclose a naked body with ash to protect against evil spirits.
Once a body was ready for burial, three or four members of the family would load it onto a horse. Preferably, the horse would be one they’d recently acquired. They would then head as far north as they could. Once they found a suitable space, they would kill the horse and bury it along with the buried or otherwise concealed body. The belief was that the deceased would take the horse with them to the afterlife.
The Navajos didn’t always bury bodies. They merely hid them sometimes. Often, they would cover bodies in brush cuttings to protect them from animals.
Handling the body properly during all these rituals was critical, as the Navajos believed someone’s chindi would be more likely to haunt the living. In general, they also tried to avoid looking at the body of the deceased. Only those participating in these death and burial rituals would look at the body.
Sometimes, after burying or hiding a body, the Navajo would also clear the area to ensure no footprints were visible. Some believe this was because the Navajos thought that footprints could provide a chindi a way to follow someone back home and attach itself to them.
However, sometimes the Navajos practiced other rituals. For example, they believed it was best for someone to die away from their home. Otherwise, they might remain to haunt the living. They would thus remove someone from their home if it appeared they were close to death. If someone did die in their home, the remaining family members would burn the home along with the body to purify it. They would then have to construct or move to a new home.
Sometimes the Navajo would go one step further and also burn all of the deceased’s belongings. This was also to ensure a smooth transition to the afterlife and protection against hauntings. Navajos who included this practice in death rituals might do so even if someone didn’t die in their home.
It wasn’t typical for the Navajos to bury someone in a coffin. That said, it sometimes happened. When it did, they would usually leave the coffin slightly open. This was to allow the spirit to escape to the afterlife.
A note on ‘tree burials’
To some extent, the information available about certain aspects of traditional Navajo burials and funerals is limited. For instance, one researcher learned of a “tree burial” ritual which involved constructing a makeshift nest out of sticks and broken limbs and placing it on one of a tree’s high horizontal limbs, with the body inside. Remarkably, it supported the body perfectly.
The researcher was unable to discover whether this was a common practice. However, because it appeared to be a ritualized way of handling a dead body, they believed it may not have been a one-time occurrence.
What Happens During a Navajo Funeral?
The Navajo funerals of today may differ substantially from the Navajo funerals of the past. That’s because, at some points in history, there was no traditional funeral separate from the burial ritual. The processes and rituals involved in burying a Navajo essentially served as a substitute for a funeral ceremony. What amounted to a funeral in traditional Navajo culture usually occurred the day after a death and only involved a small number of people. They were usually the three or four men who prepared the body.
Additionally, Navajos perceived death to be a very natural part of life. Death and the dead were fearsome in Navajo culture, but at the same time, they were inevitable. Thus, the Navajo did not encourage open grieving. They also believed that grieving openly or even saying the name of the deceased could slow their journey to the afterlife.
It’s important to understand that Native American funerals and mourning customs are very different from one tribe to another. For example, the Navajo may have avoided long funerals and open displays of grief. But among some California tribes, long funerals in which participants wailed loudly were common. These differences highlight the fact that Native American culture is actually a collection of many distinct cultures.
A note on the death taboo in Navajo culture
Researchers have several theories regarding why Navajo people considered death and the dead to be taboo subjects.
One theory suggests that because the Navajo saw death as a natural part of life, grief or mourning were almost akin to blasphemy, as they suggested that the Creator had made a mistake when deciding it was time for someone’s life to end.
Another theory has to do with the significance of oral history in Navajo culture. Like many other Native American tribes, the Navajo shared their stories (both real and mythological) through spoken word. Thus, it’s generally agreed upon that they had a good deal of respect for the power of spoken language. Speaking about death and other negative subjects could be taboo because it might attract death.
How Do the Navajo Memorialize or Venerate the Deceased?
Again, speaking of the dead was somewhat taboo in Navajo culture, although that has changed over time. Thus, the Navajo did not appear to have many practices that involved venerating the dead.
In fact, choosing not to speak about a deceased person was actually a form of veneration or respect to a degree. The Navajos thought that it was more disrespectful to speak of the dead because doing so would interfere with their journey to the afterlife.
That said, they did have some practices that could qualify as signs of memorializing or honoring the dead. Some would cut their hair to signal to the community that they were in mourning. Others would wear ashes on their faces.
Navajo Beliefs About Death: A Glimpse Into a Traditional Culture
As is the case in virtually all cultures, Navajo beliefs about death have been evolving for centuries. Although the information here does apply to traditional Navajo beliefs, it’s worth keeping in mind that those beliefs likely have changed in the past and may continue to in the future. To learn more about a similar topic, check our guide to Native American funeral poems.
- “Burial customs.” e-Hillerman, The University of New Mexico, ehillerman.unm.edu/node/1451#sthash.09vwJcRZ.dpbs
- “Chindi.” e-Hillerman, The University of New Mexico, ehillerman.unm.edu/node/1457#sthash.NQhW2may.dpbs
- Colclough, Yoshiko Yamashita. “Native American Death Taboo: Implications for Health Care Providers.” American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, SAGE Publications, 2016, www.researchgate.net/publication/298726050_Native_American_Death_Taboo_Implications_for_Health_Care_Providers
- Danchevskaya, Oksana. “Concept of Soul Among Native Americans.” Moscow State Pedagogical University, www.se.edu/native-american/wp-content/uploads/sites/49/2019/09/NAS-2011-Proceedings-Danchevskaya.pdf
- “Death hogan.” e-Hillerman, The University of New Mexico, ehillerman.unm.edu/node/3075#sthash.vG9HoePz.dpbs
- Johansen, Bruce E. “American Indian Culture: From Counting Coup to Wampum.” ABC-CLIO, 2015, www.google.com/books/edition/American_Indian_Culture_From_Counting_Co/mw-FCgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=navajo+funeral&pg=PA242&printsec=frontcover
- Shufeldt, R.W. “Mortuary Customs of the Navajo Indians.” The University of Chicago, 1891, www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/275311
- “Navajo Death Rituals.” Navajo Code, Navajo Code Talkers, 16 July 2014, navajocodetalkers.org/navajo-death-rituals/