Apache burial customs

From Life among the Apaches as observed by John C. Cremony, ca. 1862

In respect to burials I could never succeed in discovering but very little, and that little not at all of a satisfactory character. On this point they are absolutely unapproachable, and invariably succeeded in foiling any scheme I planned for a more thorough knowledge on the subject. It is certain that they abhor cremation, and resort to interment, and their burials are all performed at night only by a few selected warriors. I have reason to believe that their dead are conveyed to the most convenient height, and deposited in the ground, care being taken to shroud their bodies with stones as to prevent the wolves and coyotes from digging them up and mutilating their remains. Everything of which the defunct died possessed is scrupulously placed in the grave, but with what ceremonies, and under what observances, I have never been able to discover. The demise of a warrior provokes an excessive demonstration of woe and general sense of serious loss; the death of a squaw is almost unnoticed, except by her intimate friends and personal female relatives. Whatever external signs of grief they may practice among themselves when in a state of absolute independence and freedom, were never exhibited in presence of others while under the restraints of subjection and obedience to our dictates, and opportunity to witness them at other times was at no time vouchsafed to me or any other person I ever met. It has never been within my power to solve the reasons for this extreme caution; and all my inquiries failed to unlock the doors of Apache reticence on this subject. The nearest definition I ever arrived at was given me by old Klo-sen, the same who instituted so many questions in reference to the earth's sphericity, the formation of clouds, the causes for rain, etc.

This reflecting and experienced warrior told me that the reason why they buried all the worldly goods of dead people with their bodies, was because of a strange disease which broke out among them several years before he was born, and carried off great numbers. It was found that to use the clothing or household property of the deceased, or to come in contact with such person, was almost certain to result in a like sickness to the individual doing these things, and that the rule was adopted to bury with him or her every single thing that the defunct possessed at the time of death, and all that he or she might have used or touched before that event. But he strictly forbore from telling me anything more, although I made every effort to draw him out. It occurred to me that the disease alluded to was the smallpox, for there were plenty of evidences that it had raged among the Apaches in some past period.


Another conversation on the same topic, ca. 1864:

One day an Apache woman died in camp, and I asked Gian-nah-tah if there would be much lamentation. He simply smiled at the idea, and replied: "It was a woman; her death is of no account." The Apaches were extremely reserved about letting outsiders approach their dead, and invariably bury them under the cover of night, with the most cautious secrecy; but the Navajoes were quite unreserved, and it was only by threats or promises that we could induce the nearest of kin to take a dead body out for sepulture. Cases occurred when the corpses were left totally uncared-for for several days successively, and the deaths not reported, from a desire to escape the duty of performing the dreaded burial service.

John Cremony, who had served as a Spanish interpreter on the Bartlett Boundary Commission, was part of General Carleton's California Column during the Civil War and served at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. With him at Fort Sumner was Juan Cojo, a Mexican who had been a captive of the Apaches for more than twenty years, from age eleven to age thirty-three. Since Cremony was fluent in Spanish he was able to learn Apache from this man who knew both Apache and Spanish. In fact, Cremony persuaded General Carleton to pay Juan an additional fifty dollars per month to teach him the Apache language. Cremony practiced and verified what he learned on the leading warriors of the tribe. "They expressed much delight at my desire to learn and communicate with them in their own tongue," he says, "and manifested zeal in putting me right on all occasions."

This description of Apache burial customs is in Chapter XXI of Cremony's 1868 book, Life Among the Apaches, which is now available as a Free e-book.

The Struggle for Apacheria
The Struggle for Apacheria by
Peter Cozzens
Volume I of the Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars series
The American West in the 19th Century
The American West
in the 19th Century
by John Grafton