She remembers how they honored her before she passed away. She felt real good about it. “This house is beginning to fill with spirits” she said, “they are waiting for me.” They knew her end was near. They brought her casket into her room. The casket was built by her sister’s husband. It is the tradition that the opposite clan show respect and honor. He was from the Eagle clan. He was pleased to see her smile when she saw her clan crest, the Raven, carved on the lid. He knew his obligation to her was made whole. The Tlingit proved their loyalty to the departed before, during and after the death of someone, by way of their actions. All service in case of death, had to be paid for extravagantly no matter how trivial the service might be—the higher the cause the more extravagant the outlay. It showed that there was no counting of the cost. The obligation to honor the dead was so absolute that no one thought of slighting it in any degree. To have done so would have brought disgrace upon the dead and no crime could be greater than that.
The Tlingit know about what to do with their dead because of those people who had once died and then came back to life; it was these people who told how the departed spirits must be treated. She remembers her grandma and aunts talking about why the dying had to have their possessions burned with them. It is believed that the possessions were to be burned with the body so that the spirits will have spirit possessions to help them with their rigorous journey. They have to go through “ghost country,” crossing over two mountains and a valley before reaching “the beautiful island.” This island was surrounded by a great expanse of green water that no spirit could find its way across alone. This was a place where the spirit could reunite with all their loved ones who had passed away before. This place held all the abundance people needed to survive well and comfortably: foods from the sea and land, forests for building their clan houses, clear streams for drinking and bathing. The living had their methods to assist the dead in their journey to reach this place. One must be prepared. Careful and extensive preparations were necessary for the trip. All efforts were directed toward insuring a safe and comfortable trip.
Because of great unwillingness to touch the dead, and she could go at any hour, they dressed her in her favorite clothing and placed her in the casket. She remembers touching the fine satin lining of her wooden vehicle. She thought of her family of children, grand-children and great-grandchildren. It was not easy for her to think about the final separation from them. She was aware of a part of her being afraid of going alone, yet she knew that she would have help from her loved ones. She felt comforted when her relatives brought some of her things and put them around by her. She could see what she was taking with her. Her son brought her some good warm clothing. Her daughter helped her tie her cedarbark hat; this was to shed much rain. She put on her pair of gloves and moccasins to protect her from the thorny devil’s club bushes. A small weapon was placed at her side just in case she comes across some danger. Dry fish, berries and water were also included for when she got hungry and thirsty. They covered her with her ceremonial robe to keep her warm. This is very important to keep warm. Unlike many among the so-called civilized races, who believe that the spirits of the sinful burn in everlasting fire, the Tlingits belief of misery was the suffering from the cold, which is the explanation of burning the dead. Drowning was the worst kind of death to avoid, as the person’s only chance to ensure warmth in their journey was lost to a cold death forever. She was very happy that she had not drowned. Else she would not be where she is at this moment.
She barely remembers her last breath. The pallbearers took a plank off of a side wall, creating a whole just large enough for her casket to be drawn through. The dead were never carried through the door. A dog was always taken out with the body; this was to insure that if any evil spirit enters the space, it would be through the dog. If this were the case, the dog would be unable to return to the house for fear that the evil spirit would injure someone else in the immediate family. After removal of the body from the house, the wall opening was immediately closed to prevent any possible return of the dead person’s spirit. When the spirit realized that it was separated from its accustomed abode, there was no telling what the spirit might do. The spirit’s realization of this separation usually happened within three days after death. This is a delicate timeframe for the living and dead alike.
The body was removed to the opposite clan’s home. The body was never left alone. Family members and opposite clan members took turns, day and night, to sit with the body. The lights remained on at all times and the windows were always covered. This was to prevent any possible return of the spirit and also a preventative measure from witchcraft. It was dishonorable and disrespectful to have any family squabbles; no talking loudly or shouting, no bad feelings or actions, that might disturb the dead, which could prevent or delay the dead from reaching the goal of their beautiful island..
Crying was discouraged, especially from the closest relatives. If there was too much crying from the relatives, in the “ghost country” a great river would appear in the valley between the mountains, and the spirit would have trouble getting across. She remembers seeing her daughters sorting through all of her belongings after she died. They came across a pair of purple pants. (Somebody must have hid them because she hadn’t seen them for a long time. She would have wanted to wear those pants when they dressed her and put her in the casket!) She watched her youngest daughter grab hold of one of the pant legs and put it to her cheek while the other daughter did the same thing with the other pant leg. Then they began to sob. Suddenly, seemingly out off nowhere, one of her shoes fell right between the two women. The daughters immediately stopped crying, looked at each other and knew it was their mother reminding them not to cry too much.
When the fire cackles at a certain time the people know this is the spirit’s way of communicating. The spirit is telling the people that it is hungry. So the people prepare a big dish of all kinds of favorite foods of he departed one: hooligan oil, seal meat, dry fish, herring eggs, smoked salmon, Cracker Jacks. This is called a Fire Dish. Songs are sun in order that the spirit might have encouragement and moral support of the living. The songs create a “road”, like a path which will lead the spirit in the right direction to the beautiful island. The dish is placed into the fire. As the food burns, it is the spiritual food to feed the hunger.
The mourning feast is held the night following the cremation. The opposite clan of the deceased managed the feast. It had to be in every way a credible affair. Contributions were received from the clan of the deceased, cheerfully and liberally given. Speeches are given by the opposite clan; an oratory of several speakers, one by one, give condolences to the family. The speeches help take the edge off of the grief. This feast was to honor the memory of the dead, to give moral support and further supply the spirit with food for its long journey. Again, food was placed into the fire and the name of the dead one called. They believed the spirit of the dead to be still present and that it too feasted, rejoiced with the living and basked in the honor bestowed upon it. The spirit also participated in the singing and dancing. The songs and dances dramatized the Native way of life and philosophies.
40 days after the death of the person, another feast is prepared. It is called the 40-day Party. The Tlingits nativized a Christian belief. 40 days after Jesus’ death, he ascended into heaven. The Tlingits believed that when Jesus left this world, he too went to a ‘beautiful island.” They believe that on the 40th day after death, the spirit leaves this world and makes it’s journey to their beautiful island. It is an important day because all forms of their familiar modes of communication with their departed will change from the next day forth. The deceased’s family manages the affair, although the entire clan assists. The opposite clan is invited. Again the favorite foods of the deceased is prepared. Everyone shares in the communal feast. Consoling speeches are given by the opposite clan. Contributions, in the form of money, are received from both clans and each contribution is publicly announced with the donators’ name and their amount of donation. The monies are pooled together. After the feast, the sum is presented to the immediate family and will be used for any expenses incurred before, during and after the death. These feasts are an act of the Tlingit people’s welfare system. It provides not only an economic welfare system for the family’s debts, but an emotional and spiritual support system; an encouragement to the family members during their time of grief.
A year after the death, a Potlatch is given by the immediate family and clan. Potlatches used to be 3 days and nights. But since contact, it has been shortened to one full day and night. Clan members have the entire year to prepare. Everyone participates. Invitations are sent out. A guest will not come to the event if they have not been officially invited; they feel they must receive a personal invite from the family members of the deceased. (Invites are not assumed). During the course of the year’s preparation, new regalia will be made; woven garments, hats and ceremonial robes pouches, masks, leggings and dance aprons. All handmade items will have a formal presentation, to be named and then danced during the Potlatch. The fishermen prepare dry fish and smoked salmon, and supply fresh salmon and halbut for the feast. The hunters supply the seal meat and deer meat for the best cooks to prepare. Preserves of berries will be given away at the potlatch. Several containers the size of bathtubs are full of fresh berries to be served during the course of the Potlatch. A variety of foods are served throughout the event.
Like the 40-day Party, the Potlatches include the speeches, the feasting, and the monetary contributions. With the announcement of a contribution, the name of a deceased clan member is also announced, no matter how long ago they died. The money is then distributed to all who have aided the family in some manner or another, whether directly before or after the death. in the past year, or at any time during the deceased one’s life. It is to compensate those who were the pallbearers, those who provided the meals for the departed one’s family, those who managed and served the mourning feasts, the 40-day Party and the Potlatch and all of those who had in any way assisted, no matter though it might be so trivial as putting the moccasins on the feet of the dead before the cremation.
Gifts of clothing, preserved foods and blankets are always given to all of the guests. Blankets are a very important gift. In giving and receiving blankets, the people are keeping the spirits warm. Again, fire dishes are prepared. These are usually large woven baskets or large ceramic or enameled bowls filled with salmon and berry preserves, fruits, nuts and candies; the favorite foods of the deceased. When the fire dishes are presented to the guests, the name of a former clan member who passed away will be announced. In this manner, the deceased are always remembered, always acknowledged, always honored. In this manner, the spirits are being fed, and they will not ever know hunger or want, and they will always remain alive.
Why is it that the Tlingit seem to be so concerned with feeding the dead? Why do they have to keep the dead warm? Why do they call out the names of those who have passed away not just last year, or ten years ago, but also those who have passed away several generations ago? Why keep the ancestors alive?
She remembers the story. Long, long time ago, a man and his son were killed when they were out hunting. In their death journey, they came across many of their old relatives that had previously died. They noticed that their relatives were thin and cold. The man asked “How come you guys don’t look so good? How come you look unhealthy and do not seem happy?” An elder stepped forward and explained, “You see us here? We have been forgotten, we are not remembered, not acknowledged that we even still exist. We are hungry for these things. The only way we are going to be fed is by those who are still living.” The elder told the man and his son that they had to go back (to the land of the living), and told them what they must do. When the man and his son returned to the land of the living, they awoke lying on their fire beds about to be cremated, with their relatives in shock and disbelief. Because they came back from death, all the people believed the man’s story. This is how the feasts began.
“You see, it goes like this,” she said. “When we are acknowledged, we are kept alive by this kind of “nourishment.” Then we have the strength to help you from this side.”
From: Clarissa Lampy-Hudson, a clan sister and renowned chilkat weaver, the daughter of Auntie Irene Lampy and niece to Auntie Kathryn Mills, and Auntie Sue Belardy