Cahuilla Death Ritual: Burning the Passed’s Possessions

Main Piece:

I: When someone dies, it’s traditional to burn all of their things, like all of their personal possessions. We do that because… essentially you’re giving what they want to go with them into the next life, so you’re burning it so they can take it with them. Some people burn, some people don’t, and I think the general practice is you just try to burn like the most beloved items, that you’d be like, “They would definitely need this or would want this.” And I think part of it is like– because if you carry on their possessions for a certain long period of time, where you don’t move on or like get rid of it, it can be harmful for the living, as well. So it’s just kind of like a sense of acknowledging that they’re going somewhere else, moving on, but then you’re still here and you just have to wait it out. And you think that your family or your loved ones will burn your stuff when you go to the next world.


My informant is a good friend from high school. She is a part of the Cahuilla and Chippewa Indigenous Nations and explains this traditional practice of burning the passed’s possessions so they can take them along to the next world. When she first learned of this tradition, she thought it was sort of harsh to burn all of the things the living associated with the dead. She explains that there is usually a desire of the living to hold onto the dead’s most prized possessions, but the practice of burning is also a part of the mourning process. She says that the most traditional people will burn everything, but explains that there are also people who don’t perform this practice.


This is a transcript of a conversation between my friend and me over the phone. I have talked to her a few times about my folklore class and explained the collection to her. She was happy to help and talk about some of her traditions.


This traditional Cahuilla practice of burning the possessions of the passed is representative of how life is regarded as cyclical, rather than linear like in American culture. Because life is cyclical, it is thought that the dead will need their possessions for the next life or the next world. My friend expressed to me how she felt this practice was harsh at first, but then explains how she grew to understand that it is also part of the mourning process, and is beneficial for the living to let go of the dead’s possessions. Such a thought process can illustrate how American culture may focus on the needs of the living because if life is linear, there is nothing after death. However, her shift to understanding the benefits of this practice for both the living and the dead, along with the relief in knowing your loved ones will do the same for you when you pass, illustrates the view of life as cyclical; life continues and repeats. Furthermore, this practice could be thought of as both homeopathic and contagious magic. The act of burning possessions and its physical disintegration or disappearance mimics its transfer to the next life or the next world. While, because these items were in contact with the dead when they are burned, they will surely become in their possession again in the next life.