The informant is my grandmother, a Cherokee woman born in 1932. She worked as a nurse for her entire career, though has been retired for some time.
In this piece, my grandmother talks to me about Cherokee death rituals, and what our family does when someone passes away.
M: There’s this ritual we Cherokees do when someone passes away. We did it when your grandpa passed away, and we did it for everyone since then.
Me: Okay, what is it?
M: We usually only do it with the boys in the family. When one of the men in the family die, we go and prepare the hole where they will be buried, but many times they won’t be buried for a day or two. So, all the older boys in the family, like your cousin Eric and Pat, go out and camp next to the grave to protect it from bad spirits.
Me: Oh, really?
M: Yes. Pat and Eric and Randy and them went out during that winter storm a few years back to protect your grandpa’s grave.
Me: So do they do this at every grave?
M: Mostly just those who are buried at the family cemetery.
Me: Who else is buried there?
M: My dad, his brother. My brothers. Your grandpa is the only Barber buried there.
Me: What does the rest of the family do while they’re out there camping.
M: Usually the night before the funeral everybody comes to someone’s house, like my sister’s for your grandpa’s funeral, and we sing songs.
Me: Any kind of specific songs?
M: Some old Indian songs. Songs from a long time ago.
Me: That’s really nice. It’s a sad thing, but it’s nice.
M: Yeah. I think your grandpa would have really loved his.
This ritual features a lot of different actions taken place by various members of the family. I think the reason the men are the ones who sit by the grave site comes from old traditions where men were the protectors. This was there responsibility, and in a way their honor, to protect the open grave so that their relative could have a peaceful rest, undisturbed by evil spirits. It kind of gives me “it was the least I could do” vibe. I also think singing songs is a way for the family to remember their loved one and what they liked. Songs are very important in people’s lives, and can reveal certain things about them: what’s said in the lyrics, what kind of song it is. It makes use feel connected in a way to hear the songs a deceased relative loved, because we know they would be listening to the song too if they could.