Native American burial customs have varied widely, not only geographically, but also through time, having been shaped by differing environments, social structure, and spiritual beliefs. Prehistoric civilizations evolved methods of caring for the dead that reflected either the seasonal movements of nomadic societies or the lifeways of settled communities organized around fixed locations. As they evolved, burial practices included various forms of encasement, sub-surface interment, cremation, and exposure. Custom usually dictated some type of purification ritual at the time of burial. Certain ceremonies called for secondary interments following incineration or exposure of the body, and in such cases, the rites might extend over some time period. Where the distinctions in social status were marked, the rites were more elaborate.
The Plains Indians and certain Indians of the Pacific Northwest commonly practiced above-ground burials using trees, scaffolds, canoes, and boxes on stilts, which decayed over time.
More permanent were earthen constructions, such as the chambered mounds and crematory mounds of the Indians of the Mississippi River drainage. In some areas of the Southeast and Southwest, cemeteries for urn burials, using earthenware jars, were common.
After contact with European Americans, Native American cultures adopted other practices brought about by religious proselytizing, intermarriage, edict, and enforcement of regulations. The Hopi, Zuni, and other Pueblo peoples of Arizona and New Mexico were among the first to experience Hispanic contact in the 16th century, and subsequently, their ancestral lands were colonized. At the pueblos stone and adobe villages where Roman Catholic missions were established, burials within church grounds or graveyards consecrated in accordance with Christian doctrine were encouraged for those who had been converted to the faith. However, Native Americans also continued their traditional burial practices, when necessary in secret.
Throughout the period of the fur trade in the North Pacific, beginning in the late 18th century, Russian Orthodox missions were established among the native populations settled along the coastline and mainland interior of Russian-occupied Alaska. At Eklutna, a village at the head of Cook Inlet, north of Anchorage, an Athabascan cemetery adjacent to the 19th century Church of St. Nicholas (Anchorage Borough – Census Area), illustrates continuity of a burial custom widely recorded in historic times, that of constructing gable-roofed wooden shelters over graves to house the spirit of the dead. In the cemetery at Eklutna, the spirit houses are arranged in regular rows, have brightly-painted exteriors fronted by Greek crosses, and are surmounted by comb-like ridge crests. In this particular example, variation in the size of the shelters is an indication of social status, while clan affiliations are identified by color and by the styling of the crest.
A native american funeral ceremony. Faces are in shadow out of respect: