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Each of the Creator's gifts, particularly animals and humans, possess a Spirit. Because the Spirit is eternal we know that when we die, it is only a physical death and our journey continues on.
Traditional Cree spirituality also strongly reinforces the principle of a circle of life, the essence of which is found in Spirit. One who finds honor in the circle of birth, infancy, childhood, youth maturity and old age, can also find honor in death. Although the body undergoes physical transformations, the Spirit remains unchanged. When the body is no longer viable the spirit ascends into another realm.
Separation from the body does not necessarily mean that all ties to people are disconnected. Spirits have the power to manifest themselves to the human eye and mind as well as to communicate with us. For example Cree people believe that the Northern Lights occur when the Spirits are dancing. Various Spirits such as the Old Woman, the bear or the buffalo often enter the Sweat Lodge during prayer. At other times, depending upon our need, particular Spirits are called upon to provide us with assistance. A variety of Spirits also come to us during dreams or in visions.
Two ceremonies, the Wake and Round Dance illustrate the Cree philosophy of death and its relationship between us and Spirits. The ceremony for delivering the body back to Mother Earth as well as the ceremony to commune with Spirits who have shed the body constitute part of the bereavement and healing process.
The Wake may last up to four days and three nights. Friends and relatives continuously take turns staying with the body. As people come and go they relate stories of earlier days and share memories of the deceased. Laughter is acceptable because it is considered a healing medicine. It releases tension and helps realize that there is still joy for those left behind. We also cry and comfort one another in our grief. Often songs and prayers are offered. Although it is a time of sorrow it is also a time of joy and reverence, for the Spirit is now free to join our ancestors. We are respectful to acknowledge that time will heal the wounds of immediate loss but that the memory of the person will not depart.
Traditionally, it was women who washed and dressed the body in preparation for its burial. Women also made the moccasins which are placed on the feet. Sweetgrass, our sacred and purifying plant is placed in the right hand of the deceased. Tobacco, the instrument to aid communication between the Creator and ourselves, is also placed in the casket. As well, personal property, especially the deceased person's pipe, is left with the body as these articles are, in essence, part of the person.
Women prepare the meals during the days of bereavement. The food for the feast following burial is also prepared by women although some women, at times, will be excluded from handling or touching the food. If it is inadvertently tasted or touched, that food is set aside and not eaten. This is because the intention of the feast is to eat with the Spirits.
At the grave site prayers are offered and songs are often sung. Before the casket is lowered into the earth it is covered with a blanket as a gesture of farewell and respect. If the deceased was married it is often the marriage blanket which is used. The casket is then lowered into the earth. The male relatives and friends fill the grave with earth before all the mourners congregate at the feast to pray for the Spirit's journey and well being.
Cree people continue to honor the deceased's Spirit. In order to help the Spirit undo its ties with us we are advised not to cry during the night after the fourth sun has set. In addition, the deceased's property is distributed. Although it is painful to part with those things as they often provide us with constant and fond memories of the deceased, it is recognized that should we keep them the Spirit may not have the freedom to completely depart from us. Thus it is for the Spirit's well being that the give-away occurs. After a year has passed the deceased's family gives a feast to honor the passage of the Spirit from the body.
Neither the Spirits nor the people ever fully depart from each other. Our Round Dances are held to honor each others existence. The origin of the Round Dance actually derives from our Woman Spirit Ancestors. The story has been told as follows:
There was once a girl and her mother who lived together and loved each other deeply. The girl was in her teens when her mother passed on. The girl continuously mourned for her mother. One day while picking berries her mother came to her daughter. She said she was sad and asked her daughter to stop mourning. She asked to released from her ties to earth a she was not in peace.
In return the mother offered to teach her daughter a dance and songs so the at certain times the could be together again. The daughter learned the dance and song and shared them with her people. This is our Round Dance. It is a time for those people who are here to commune with those who have, passed on.
When death is viewed as only a part of a continuing process it helps the surviving members and the community as a whole to remember that our ancestors are here with us today just as we will someday be part of our future generations' life. As such the values we hold sacred will never be lost.
The following poem illustrates that Cree people are not the only ones to embrace this philosophy. Other peoples hold similar beliefs as well. Karo Baha Alchesay, an Apache woman who passed on February 16, 1988 has aptly expressed the tenet of deportment for those remaining.
When I must leave you, for a little while
Please do not grieve and shed wild tears
and hug your sorrows to you, through the years.
But start our bravely with a gallant smile
and for my sake and in my name
live on and do all things the same.
Seed not your loneliness on empty days,
but fill each waking hour in useful ways.
Reach out your hand in comfort and in cheer
and I in return will comfort you and hold you near;
And never, never be afraid to die,
for I am waiting for you in the sky!