Paying respect during a pandemic

Cecil Eshappie is an elder at the Bernice Sayese Center. Submitted photo.

Living in lockdown during a pandemic is proving to be quite difficult for people all over the world. Humans are social by nature and taking away that social aspect of our lives can be detrimental to our mental health and not to mention that many people have lost their jobs.

Indeed, these are tough times. And because there is a virus, there is also death, but with a ban on gatherings and travel, if someone loses a loved one, they’ll find that they may not be able to attend or even hold a funeral. So, what can a person do if they want to pay their respects, but feel that they can’t? I spoke to elder Cecil Eshappie, who is an elder at the Bernice Sayese Center about this subject.

“Just recently we had two deaths and we had to put them off because of this Covid-19,” Eshappi said. “And in the First Nations culture we like to get everything done within four days. We don’t bury our loved ones after the sun goes down. We like to, everything needs to be done within the four days and the funeral is usually at [day] one or two, then we finish that, we take them to the graveyard, and we put them down. But not being able to make a funeral and pay your respects… sometimes I suggest, write a letter how you want to write it. Put your feelings on that letter, smudge the letter and burn it. But before you burn it, hold your tobacco and pray to that person, the Creator, the grandfathers, the grandmothers. Call on the eagle’s spirit to carry your prayers to the Creator.”

Writing a letter that bears all of your thoughts and feelings that you cannot physically say to a person and then burning it is also something that’s done in therapy when a person either has a lot of pain that they are holding on to and want to let go or when a person wishes they could say something to a certain person, but can’t for whatever reason. It’s believed that writing these thoughts and feelings down is therapeutic because what’s on your mind and in your heart is now out and burning the paper represents all of that going away.

But in the traditional sense, burning the paper sends these thoughts and feelings up to the spirits along with the smoke.

“Your prayers will be heard with the tobacco because it’s one of the four medicines that we use,” Eshappie says. “Every ceremony that I’ve been to, or I’ve known. The tobacco is our connection to the Creator, it’s sort of like a communication line. You hold that tobacco; you offer it and as you’re praying your prayers will be heard. The eagle spirit will be there and the grandfathers. If you know your own [native] language, pray in your own language.”

The four sacred herbs, or the four medicines, are tobacco, cedar, sage, and sweetgrass. Tobacco is often used as an offering and for prayer, but sage can be used as well. If you want to use tobacco, you can buy some from any gas station. But if you buy cigarettes, take the tobacco out of its paper before using it for smudging, praying, or gifting.

“I felt a great relief,” Eshappi says of a time his brother died and he wrote a letter, burning it afterwards. “Because, I have a strong connection in our culture. I understand things, but I had to experience things on my own, and I had to listen. You know, sometimes you read a letter and you have to read between the lines to get the real message and I’ve always wondered why my grandmother said “Listen. You take a walk out in nature, you listen.” But I couldn’t get it. Until I listened with my heart and things came to me…as I was praying [for my daughter] a voice came to me and said “sing.” … I don’t need to know any songs to sing for the grandfathers, as long as I sing for them. So, you see, we need to listen to our spirit when it tells us to do something, or some call it a gut feeling. Listen to that… in our culture, things will come to us and it depends how connected we are to our spirit name and to the Creator. How we feel when we’re praying, we pray with our heart, we’re praying with all we have.”

Writing down thought and feelings has to be proven to be therapeutic, but there’s a very social aspect to funerals. Especially Indigenous funerals where the community gets together and has a feast. It’s something that just can’t be done right now, but we are lucky to live in a digital age where video calling is easy as long as you have a phone, tablet, or computer. And of course, there’s the phone call. A video or phone call won’t allow for hugging or just being near someone for support, but for now, it’s the next best thing.

“You can talk about your feelings, your good times that you had with your friend. And share it,” Eshappie says on talking about a loved one who has passed. “You know, some people look at death as the end. It’s not like that. You see, when our loved ones go, the physical body goes back to dust… we leave this journey, then we go to the spirit world, we continue another journey with our loved ones that have passed on. So, down here we’re sad, we’re lonely. I should have done this; I shouldn’t have done that. Let those feelings go and be happy for him. Some cultures celebrate, they celebrate the passing of a loved one and that’s okay, I respect that… but some of us keep the pain and the hurt and when we do that, we keep the person back here from reaching the other side. After four days we need to let that go. Yes, we can talk about them and be happy, but if we keep crying and being sad and holding them back, he’s not going to the next world, the next spirit world. So, we need to remember that… to make it easier think of it like, she’s finished here. She’s finished what she had to do here, now she’s got to go on to the next world. Be with her family that has passed on and continue on the journey up there.”

Eshappie goes on to say how he tells his grandchildren that he’s just a phone call away and when he passes on he’ll just be a prayer away and that when a person passes they’re not gone forever, they’ve gone on to their next journey and can still be prayed to.

He says whether you speak a native language or not, their spirit will hear your prayers and to listen. And if you need a photograph or something physical to represent that person, then by all means use it. Talk to it and pray to your loved one’s spirit, because although you may not see it, if you listen you can hear them.