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Reflecting on Death: First Nations People

Reflecting on Death: First Nations People

Reflecting on Death - First Nations People

This piece was written by my young friend, Lindsay Borrows. The shortened version is found in Integrating a Palliative Approach: Essentials for Personal Support Workers. – Kath


The Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation is located on the eastern shore of the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula on Georgian Bay. We have over 2,000 band members, and about 700 live on reserve. These numbers represent our family, and we are all connected through systems of caregiving. These structures extend beyond the nuclear family and include our clan relations, adoptions and extended relatives. Part of having a large family means grief continually affects the entire community as people’s lives as members finish their journey in this life.

When tragedy such as death occurs, it is generally expected that people set aside their differences (whether political, cultural or religious) and gather together in support.

Few communities are entirely homogenous in belief and custom. Ours is no exception. Some that pass away are traditional Anishinaabe, others Christian, and most are syncretic, practicing a fusion of beliefs. Within this diversity, no two funerals are the same. There are, however, general traditions that help ensure that the deceased is not alone in their final walk home, and that the remaining family is supported as they grieve.

If someone is ill, many of the older people know how to listen to their breath and they can tell when the person only has a few days left on the earth. There are signs in nature as well, which indicate when someone is close to dying. When my great-grandpa passed away, his friend (now in his late 90s) saw four ducks circling in a pond. Then he looked up and, as if in reflection of the ducks, four birds circled overhead. He felt this was not a coincidence but was a message with important symbolism of the circle, the number four, and the birds. He immediately went home and his wife informed him that my great-grandpa had died.

So we see it is not just people involved in care giving, but we can trust nature is also there to provide comfort and closure in important ways. This is not just a human endeavour but extends to the other realms as well.

Days before the actual funeral, people gather and talk about the deceased. This is a time to honour the individual’s life, shed tears with relatives, and laugh! There is always humour as people get together and discuss memories. The older people speak Anishinaabemowin (our language), and we sing. The songs may include drumming, hymns in Anishinaabemowin or in English, or a special song that reminds people of the deceased. Sometimes the funeral is held at the community centre, other times at either the Catholic or United church on reserve. Both of these buildings are over three generations old. Sometimes a three-day wake is held at the home of the deceased. This protocol varies depending on the family and their needs.

A sacred fire is held after the person’s death, and only stops until they have been successfully sent on their journey back to the Creator and they have been buried.

The fire will often be burning for three days and young people continually keep watch. This isn’t seen as a punishment to keep the fire, but it is sacred. You enter a different dimension of time as you are engaged in that important work. You see and feel things that may not be apparent to others. People offer tobacco to the sacred fire and say a prayer when they arrive on the day of the funeral. Most consider themselves to be both a mourner and comforter as they rely on one another during these difficult times.

As people arrive at the community centre or church, they are often walking hand in hand, giving hugs, and sharing words of comfort. Even the reserve dogs sit around the building. They seem to keep watch and act as a welcoming committee of sorts. During the service people sing again, share more memories, and take one last look at the body of the deceased. They may put sweetgrass, cedar, sage or tobacco in the coffin, or pray or cry as they say goodbye. This can take over two hours depending on the number in attendance.

After the service, people follow the funeral hearse around the reserve, until it ends up at the graveyard. There will be drumming and a short prayer. As the person is buried tobacco, flowers, or other offerings gifts may be placed into the ground where the person is being buried as a sign of respect. Following the burial there is a community feast.

A plate of food is prepared for the departed soul, and placed in the sacred fire while an elder says the prayer.

People travel long distances to attend, and I usually overhear people say that we need to gather together more often, not just when someone passes on. To me this shows how positive the funerals are and even though there is great sadness, people feel good. They want to gather together more and remember how blessed we are to have life and to eventually be able to pass on in a good way.


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