Death: A Lakota Lutheran Perspective

-Mary Minton-

             In the Lakota culture the experience of bereavement carries strong community and spiritual connotations. Joan is a 52 year old woman, seventh generation of Lakota, Scotch, Irish and French descent. Her childhood was shaped by the Lakota culture and traditions she participated in growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She is currently a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and is the first Lakota female to assume this position. She serves a Lutheran church in Rapid City and also serves as Lutheran campus pastor at a local college. She reveres her Lakota heritage and actively intersperses it within her ministry often citing a prayer in Lakota or singing a Lakota hymn.


            Joan explained that the Lakota traditions dovetail nicely with Christian traditions related to bereavement. These traditions are commonly understood and honored by community members. In Lakota culture, a wake is the first event to follow the death. This ritual may last from one to three days and is customarily held in a community building or a home. During this time the community gathers to honor the deceased by coming to the wake, viewing memorable items representative of the deceased, visiting with the surviving family members individually, offering tributes and memories of the deceased, and sharing in a traditional Lakota prayer service, music, and a meal. At all times a surviving family member is with the body and available to visit with those who attend the wake. The casket is flanked on either side by a table filled with flowers and memorabilia of the deceased, and star quilts are hung on the wall behind the casket. All of these items will be given away. This is a time of open sharing, mourning, respect, and compassion. It is not uncommon to see people from all walks of life attend a Lakota wake. People take time off from work, travel long distances, even get a pass to leave jail for this sacred event. The concept of family is far reaching in this culture.


Those who attend the wake are welcome to add their own mementos to the casket as a parting gift to the deceased. Joan wryly commented that during a recent funeral home tour during her seminary education, the funeral director displayed a casket supplied with ‘secret’ pockets that could be filled with small mementos. She thought, “ This is nothing new, we’ve been doing this for years!” Another parishioner told me of witnessing this tradition as he attended a Lakota wake saying, “ My gosh, people kept putting things on top of the dead body that I thought we wouldn’t be able to see it finally.” Such an outpouring of presence and memorabilia frames the Lakota wake.


            The ‘give-away’ is a tradition that provides all who attend the wake with something to take home. The items given away may have been collected and saved prior to the death by the now deceased (as might be more common with an elder’s death), or the items might be purchased by the surviving family with money given to them at the time of death. Items may also be donated by others specifically for the ‘give-away’. These items may be useful household things such as dishtowels or other practical items, or they may be more personal mementos representing the deceased. There is always enough to go around and this tradition seems to be an effortless act of love, respect and compassion. I asked Joan if this ritual could be construed as a burden by the survivors and she simply said, “ The needs are always attended to. Whether it is money or items that are needed, people respond appropriately and with no fanfare.” The underlying theme is that the community will provide.


            This underlying theme carries through following the wake, which ends at midnight. The funeral is the next day with a burial afterwards. All who attend the burial take part in adding dirt to cover the casket after it has been lowered into the ground. The casket is filled with numerous mementos as described previously, and all the flowers from the wake and the funeral are placed on top of the grave. All those present witness the lowering of the casket, add dirt to cover it, and place the flowers atop the fresh grave. Quite a bit more involvement than the graveside services I’ve attended in which the grave is often still above ground as we leave.


            The theme of community is prominent as that which adds comfort to the pain of loss. Joan told of the common tradition of people shaking the survivors’ hands as a sign of acknowledgement of grief and sadness not only at the time of death but for many years following. Though it has been seven years since both her parents died, Joan said that it is not uncommon for a Lakota person who knows of her loss to greet her with a supportive handshake. This act communicates the understanding that grief is long term. The strengths of the Lakota traditions are in providing an open and non-threatening atmosphere in which to grieve, the visible and tangible presence of social support from the community, and in the many Lakota hymns, prayers, and native language used. The language is the core of who these people are according to Joan.


            There is nothing about the Lakota traditions that Joan could identify as contributing to the pain of loss. There is unconditional love and awareness that death is a very sacred time. The view of life after death in Lakota culture is similar to the Christian belief regarding eternal salvation. When a Lakota person dies it is believed they go to the spirit world and that these spirits are present. The period of mourning may run anywhere from 3 days to one year. During this time a traditional spiritual leader takes some of the deceased’s possessions, makes a bundle, and places it in the survivor’s home. This represents a ‘keeping of the soul’. After the time of mourning, this bundle is burned.


            The Lakota people place a high value on being allowed to grieve openly. Joan describes this as healthy grieving wherein one can grieve openly in public and others naturally approach the one who is grieving. Quite simply, grief is honored in Lakota culture. In contrast, Joan believes that unhealthy grieving is characterized by an inhibition to openly express feelings resulting in internalizing the grief. She observed that the funerals in the Lutheran church appear stark, formal, and stoic in contrast to what she has grown up with. She views family as the key component in the relationship between private grief and public mourning. Family, however, represents not only blood relationships but also all who come. These people are the bridge towards the ongoing public support and acknowledgement of the existence of one’s private grief. These are the people who will initiate contact and provide validation during the year of mourning, and also for an indefinite time beyond. It is as though the tradition provides a naturally occurring bereavement support group comprised of abundant acceptance.


            Support groups are an important part of the bereavement process according to Joan. She sees the value primarily in preventing the isolation that can accompany grief. In a group one learns to be strong, learns to love unconditionally, one is able to put oneself aside long enough to recognize someone else’s pain, and ultimately becomes open to what others have experienced. Whereas support seems to flow naturally in the Lakota culture, Joan noted that Americans have professionalized support and have had to make an intentional effort at creating a supportive atmosphere for the bereaved. It may indeed be the aspect of support that is at the root of this final nugget from my friend, Joan…. “In Indian grieving we lose someone close to us, then we lose another, and another. With each death you are taken back to the other losses but you are aware that you are stronger each time.”


Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F460, Fall, 2001.
(C) 2001, Mary Minton. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at