The Inuit have a fascinating way of life, they are a culture of hunter-gatherer with deep nomadic roots and a remarkable capacity to interact with nature and its unyielding forces. The Inuit live in the Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and Russia. To survive for thousands of years in the severe conditions of the arctic, they had to develop their own technology including tools, clothes, housing and methods of transportation. The environment that they made into their home, played a major part in shaping their mythology, belief system and traditions as well as in shaping their perception of life and death. Their way of thinking, foreign to Western mindset, led to the forming of different misconceptions regarding the Inuit customs of death and dying.
In this article we’ll explore the beliefs and perceptions surrounding death in the traditional, pre-modernization Inuit culture. As an indigenous people spread across different territories worldwide, there is variation both in mythology and ritual depending on the area, however, the underlying beliefs stem from a similar worldview.
Animism, Afterlife, Shamanism
The Inuit worldview is strongly influenced by the relationship between humans and animals. Traditional Inuit beliefs are based on Animism, according to which all living beings or objects, have a spirit. Tribe members, livestock, trees, water, celestial bodies, they all have spirits. Also, the gods of the Inuit mythology are forms of spirits, however, being gods, they are on an elevated level.
As in many animistic cultures, peoples respect and even worship animals, often regarding them as relatives. In some cases, animals were seen as the spiritual abodes of dead ancestors and an Inuk may attribute to animals the same sorts of ideas and the same mental processes as himself or they may also be associated with even greater power or magical abilities. The Inuit lived by certain taboos, which guided them through their interaction with the environment. Hunters, for example, had to observe certain rules of conduct. The anirniit, the equivalent of a soul or spirit, persists after death and dead animals are sometimes credited with knowledge of how their remains are being treated, and potentially with the power to take vengeance on the hunter. Various precautions are taken in all stages of a hunt so as not to offend the hunted animal; life is full of traditions to ensure the anirniit are not offended.
The Inuit see the relationship between human and animal as closely linked and there are occasions when a human could transform into an animal and an animal could transform into a human. This type of metamorphosis is a key feature that recurs in animistic myths and ritual, and it is part of a worldview that is less familiar to Western minds, one where life is in constant movement and the identity is less fixed; the interaction with the environment is in continuous flow.
Animist spirituality is focused on the here and now, often addressing issues of necessity such as health, nourishment and safety needs, alongside social questions and needs. Animism also recognizes that the universe is alive with spirits and that humans are interrelated with them. The Inuit deal with questions of life and death from this perspective; one which is grounded in the here and now, while seeing the individual as intimately connected with the whole.
According to Inuit belief, the spirit is eternal; a rich mythology supports this notion through stories of the afterlife and the events that succeed death. The underworld is named Adlivun, it is located beneath the land and the sea. The souls are purified there, in preparation for the journey to the Land of the Moon, Quidlivun, where they find eternal rest and peace. Only those who have lived a pure life or otherwise became purified in Adlivun, go to Quidlivun, the rest are reincarnated on earth.
Shamans, the religious leaders, are connected to the spirits and are believed to be able to communicate with them. The shaman takes charge of the relations to the supernatural powers that interfere with human life. They are ritual intercessors, healers and problem solvers of the community as well as mediators between the earthly and spirit worlds who promote cohesion and physical and mental well-being in the society. This includes actions like procuring game animals in times of failing luck in hunting, driving away wicked spirits, inviting good weather and exploring the future.
If hunger was impending because the game animals had disappeared the shaman could visit the deities who controlled the animals, the Moon-Man or the Sea-Woman Sedna, who may have become angry at some offence by someone in the community. Sedna, besides being the goddess of the sea is also the ruler of Adlivun and a centrally important goddess. She controls all sea beasts and is herself half-woman and half-fish.
The shaman would try to find the offender and have them confess to appease Sedna. In some areas in Greenland and Labrador, these offences become materialized through myth as dirt in Sedna’s hair. The shaman had to pay a visit to her deep in the sea and ask to be allowed to cleanse and comb her hair. Having succeeded, the Sea-Woman would promise to set the animals free that they might be hunted again.
The Meaning of Death
The Inuit belief system enabled them to observe a connection between the environment and the individual where death is an integrated part of the cycle of life. Additionally, the conditions in which they lived presented a challenging reality, one where death is often witnessed by the living.
Tradition and Ritual of Burial
For the Inuit to die was to cross the boundary between the physical and the spiritual worlds.
After a person dies, the body of the deceased was kept overnight in the house and was wrapped in animal skins. The next day, the body would be removed through the back of the house and not through the front door because this was believed to bring bad luck to the hunters. Then, family members carry the body to the grave.
The period of mourning, called Naasiivik, lasts for five days and during this period, individuals in the community had to follow specific rules to ensure a safe passage between the worlds. For example, the deceased’s belongings would be taken out of the house and aired so that the living won’t become infected. Family members of the deceased would bring all their belongings outside and let them air well. The women of the household would not wash themselves or dress well and certain food items were not allowed during the mourning period. Sometimes the members of the community had to carry weapons in case of an encounter with an evil spirit.
The funeral rites differed between geographical locations. The Asiatic Inuit, it is said, burned their dead, the East Greenlanders sent them off into the sea, whereas the rest and greater part of the people buried their dead beneath a heap of stone.
The dying person often told his relatives where they wanted to get buried. It is an old Inuit tradition to be buried at the same place where you were born. When an Inuit was buried, a white rock was placed on the top of the grave where the head of the deceased was as a means of guarding the body against roaming spirits.
As in most pre-modernized societies, for the Inuit, death and dying was an event that is dealt with by the close community and is linked to the heart of the culture. The occasion was ritualized and observed with care for the dying as well as for the living who were left behind.
Western Misconceptions Regarding the Death of Inuit Elders
The myth of elder abandonment and suicide is deeply entrenched in white literature about the Inuit. Sights of euthanasia as witnessed by western eyes gave birth to many exaggerated stories. The common idea that the Inuit put their elder folk on ice floes and sent them off to their deaths is a misconception that needs a great deal of context to be rightfully understood. In actuality, the striving for a quick and dignified death was significant in Inuit thought.
For the Inuit, the way one dies carries great importance and has an impact in determining the path the soul will take in the afterlife. It was not only the moral behavior of the deceased that determined the location of their afterlife, but also the way in which they died. For example, men who died while whaling or women who died in childbirth were assured an afterlife in the sea.
'The body’s desire' to free its soul is a factor in determining how the soul will continue. A slow death held up a soul on its way to the afterlife, whereas a quick death (even a violent one) let the soul leave the body swiftly and continue straight to Quidlivun. This perception has great implications on how one might die. It allows the option for a person to decide to end their life early rather than wait for a natural death. In this respect, an elder in the community of traditional Inuit, could make the choice of how and when to die.
Regarding the abandonment of elders to die alone in the snow, this image was ingrained in Western minds; it is a story that came about through a few cultural misconceptions. In “White Lies about the Inuits” John Steckley says:
“While early accounts of Euthanasia brought the deaths of Inuit elders into the Western spotlight, that alone did not create the myth…. The first error was in interpreting elder euthanasia in cases of extreme bad health as abandonment for the good of the group rather than the individual. The second was in perceiving this rare practice as common…. The third mistake was in construing elder abandonment as permanent and necessarily fatal when the intent was temporary, with hopes of rescue”.
Euthanasia or abandonment was never an act performed for the good of the group, but rather a choice of the individual to end life swiftly and continue her journey to the afterlife. Moreover, as a semi nomadic people, traveling between locations in extreme circumstances meant facing harsh situations. During travel it’s possible that an elder would fall behind and rescue would not be available fast enough. Members of the community would expect and hope for the elder to make it to camp, but sometimes he never arrived.
By today, much of Inuit culture has been modernized and westernized. Their culture began changing when first contact was made with European missionaries, whalers, fur traders, and explorers. As centuries went by and political powers shifted worldwide, the Inuit became more and more assimilated. However, despite adopting various features of modern life, many Inuit continue to live according to traditional values that arise out of their own rich cultural heritage. When it comes to customs surrounding death and dying, there is much in the traditional Inuit worldview that Western culture could gain by getting to know better. The struggle with questions of ethics and dignity around death in modern society is constant, and we may find aid in older perceptions as we explore new ways to interact with these questions.