Navajo: Overcoming the Power Fear

An old Navajo man, a strong Christian, passed away after a long-term illness. His widow and children were Christians, too, so his funeral was focused on God and full of the comfort of the Christian faith. But even though they trusted in Christ, the family continued to feel the influence of Navajo customs and traditions—especially in this time of grief and death.

One night the widow heard a noise that frightened her and brought back vividly her traditional beliefs about the dead. She became convinced the sound was caused by her dead husband visiting her dwelling place. So she did what Navajo custom taught her to do: she had a new home built for herself and left the dwelling where she and her husband had lived together for many years.

For a time the comfort and strength of her Christian beliefs were eclipsed by the powerful traditions of fear she had been raised with.

Navajo Funeral Traditions

The conflict between Navajo traditions and Christian beliefs that this woman faced is not unusual. Many Navajo Christians are still strongly influenced by the traditions and customs they grew up with and are surrounded by.

Navajos are sure, for example, that death will come to them. According to one of their stories, long ago the people put an animal hide on a body of water. They agreed that if it sunk, there would be death in the world; if it stayed floating, no one would ever die. When the people turned their backs, the coyote came by and threw pebbles on the hide until it sank. He told the people that if there was no death, they would run out of places to live. That is why death comes for each one of us.

But although Navajos are certain death will come, they aren't so much afraid of death itself as they are of the dead. According to their traditions, when a person dies, he or she goes down into the underworld, a place where the dead reside. And if proper precautions aren't taken by the living, the dead can come back from that underworld and visit.

Because of their fear of such visits, many Navajo people are reluctant to look upon the dead or to handle the dead. And their traditional funeral customs reflect their fear:

■ When a person dies, the body is buried as soon as possible.

■ A lot of care is put into burial, because the people believe that if a body is buried improperly, the deceased can come back to the former dwelling in a spirit form.

■ If the person dies in his or her home, the home must be destroyed.

■ Two men are required to handle the body, washing and dressing it. The two men wear only moccasins, and their bodies are covered with ashes to ward off any evil spirits. The rest of the family remains in the hogan until the burial is complete.

■ Whenever possible the Navajos look for an outsider—an anglo, for example—to take care of the burial, so that none of them will be at risk from the dead.

Christian Navajo Funerals

When Navajos become Christians, they replace their fear of the dead with trust in the One who brings life. Christian funerals for Navajos, therefore, resemble in many ways Christian funerals for anglos.

The services usually begin with a piano prelude, played by a member of the family or congregation. In some cases, a group of singers are asked to provide special music—often including the favorite songs of the deceased.

Usually, a member of the family gives a remembrance, or eulogy, followed by the minister's message. After the message, musicians play and sing as friends and relatives view the body for the last time.

The graveside service usually includes more singing, words of encouragement, and a concluding prayer. Then, while the women and children watch, the men who are present help to cover the grave.

Perhaps two of the most distinctive features of Christian Navajo funerals are the high level of participation in the service by family and friends, and the manner in which the death is announced and the funeral paid for. News of a Navajo's death is announced almost immediately on the radio. And because most Navajos don't have life insurance, the announcement includes a request for money from members of the deceased person's clan to help the family meet the funeral expenses.

When Religion and Culture Meet

Although the Christian Navajo has conquered fear of death through faith in Christ, it's difficult for some new Christians to completely rid themselves of the old fears—especially at the time of death. Funerals can be awkward in a family in which some members are Christians and some still cling to old customs and fears. Sensitivity and understanding of all points of view becomes very important.

For example, because non-Christian Navajos fear the dead, it's probably best not to have funerals in the home, and to place outsiders (the church) in charge, if possible. However, even the church funeral creates problems and misunderstandings. Instead of burying the body immediately, Christians prepare it for viewing. Instead of sending two brave men to bury the corpse, Christians go together, and all the men join in covering the coffin. Instead of destroying the building where the "contaminating body" has been, Christians bring that body into their churches and then continue to gather in that building week after week. Such behavior can seem foolhardy to the traditional Navajo.

So Navajo pastors and other Navajo Christians continue to wrestle with misunderstandings and misinterpretations caused by anglo-Christian funeral practices. In a community so filled with fear of death, it's sometimes difficult to know what funeral practices will best point to the good news of the One who is stronger than death.

Stanley Jim is a student at Reformed Bible College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.