In our Carrier culture when a person passes away we have a Potlatch. The three local southern Carrier bands get together to support the family. The Carrier people have a great deal of respect for the dead and the people all help out in any way they can. It is a very sad occasion but happy because of all the people from different areas are there to support the family.
As soon as the person passes away, we usually burn his/her clothes the same night; we believe the dead person needs the clothes for their journey to the other side. The Potlatch starts the same day the person passes away. People start to donate food, and people come to cook for the people that have come to be with the family.
The entire local band’s people are notified and the local bands start to donate money to help with the food, ribbons, rope, pamphlets, and blanket and hall rentals. The food helps to feed the people three times a day for three days and sometimes more.
The ribbons are in 4 colors, red, white, yellow and green and used for decorating the vehicle transporting the body back to the reservation. The rope is used to lower the casket into the ground. One person is designated to work on the pamphlets, where members of family and friends get say what they want to say to the deceased persons and did not get a chance when they were still on earth.
Usually the second day after the death, the family have a family meeting and other people are there to help with the decisions for the Potlatch. This is the time when they appoint a person or group to help ease the work load for the family. The people who are designated to do this are the people who will get paid after the funeral.
One person is designated to look after all of the donations from the local bands and from personal donations from the people. This is a huge job; when I to do this I have to account for every cent and get receipts. I had to work with in the amount of $10,000 this last funeral and I had to use up all of the money. The cooks are hired and the cooks work the hardest because they are cooking three meals a day for sometimes five days.
About 10 gravediggers are picked and they have to dig the morning of the funeral rain, snow, cold or sunny. The family also picks the 6 poll bearers, and 6 people to make the casing for the grave. (Case for the coffin to sit in) They also pick 4 people to make the grave marker, usually a little house to put on top of the grave.
A person is also designated to fund raise to help with the Potlatch and that person usually holds Looni Auction, 50/50 draws. People donate blankets, towels, toiletries, microwave, CDs, anything and people just bid and if their number is picked they win that article.
We have people who stay with the body during the Potlatch and they stay up all night. People are gambling and playing Lahal long into the night and it makes it easier for the people to stay with the body all night.
The immediate family buys the clothes for the deceased, and then takes them to the funeral home. The family also has to take care of buying the ribbons, blanket and guest books for the Potlatch. Sometimes, the families who can afford it or if there is money left over from the Band donations they buy matching shirts and pants for the poll bearers.
The casket is the responsibility of the Band the deceased person belonged to. The family has to pay the remainder if it is more than what the band allows. The funeral on the last day of the Potlatch is a sad and huge occasion because the people who are not able to be there during the three days come on the last day for the burial. First, there is the service, during the service chiefs and anybody wanting to send a message to the people do so, and then the burial. The poll bearers have to tie a black ribbon on their outside arm when they are carrying the body (The black ribbon is to keep the evil spirits away). Before the lowering of the casket a person sweeps out the grave with spruce boughs and the casket is opened a wee bit, and a person knocks all around the outside of the casket. The Carrier people believe that bad spirits or the spirit of people might be lingering in the grave and they do not want anybody else to follow the dead person to the grave.
It is our custom to lower the casket for the first time about ¼ ways down and then lift it back up about the same distance. The second time it is lowered about ½ way down and then about 1 foot above the grave, and the last time you touch the ground and then as far up as you can above the grave and then finally lowered for good. I really don’t know why it is done this way but it has been done this way for as long as I remember. After the grave is covered back with the dirt, they set all the flowers on the grave and then lower the little house on top of the grave All the ribbons which were tied to the vehicle for decoration and the ribbons which were tied on the poll bearer’s arms are tied to the cross on the grave. Everybody is then invited back for a huge dinner and pay-outs for all the people who were designated for jobs. Figuring out the amount to pay the workers takes up to three hours. The speeches are then done by the family to thank everybody and to give words of advice to the children, teens and anybody there.
The funerals today are different than the funeral we had many years ago. The people used to bathe and dress the body themselves instead of the funeral homes (usually the same person is designated to do that). The people also built their own caskets, and the craftsmanship was incredible. Everything about the customs is similar except when we ate we sat on the floor, instead of tables and chairs. A large canvas was spread on the floor and the food was all put in the middle. They use to have dice throws to raise money for the Potlatch; for prizes they use to have horses, leather vests, leather gloves, and leather moccasins. There were no children allowed at the funerals, the children were not allowed to run around, it was very strict. They also use to have dances after the funeral, to respect the deceased person if they liked to dance. They use to gamble all night and play Lahal and have dice throws.