12/08/2013 01:06 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2014

Chuckling at a Funeral Would Have Been a Disaster

The mass had been said.

And now it was time for Tommy Brewer and me, attired in the vestments of altar boys, to lead the funeral procession out of the front door of the Holy Rosary Indian Mission church on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and up the hill to the cemetery.

As we started up the hill in front of the procession we listened to the elderly Lakota women mourners walking directly behind us. When a Lakota man, woman or child dies, the entire community turns out for the wake and the funeral. The women weep in unison and their cries of mourning can cut to your heart like a knife.

The first time I witnessed death and heard the Lakota women mourn was before I started school. I lived at the reservation community of Pejuta Haka (Medicine Root), or Kyle, as it is listed on the reservation map.

One of our neighbors at Three-Mile-Creek, where my family had its allotted land, was the Hernandez family. One of the children, a girl about my age, was my playmate. One beautiful summer day we were sitting on the top of a flat-bed trailer used to haul hay. Mary Hernandez l was looking at the fluffy white clouds floating against the deep blue sky when she saw a sleigh with Santa Claus on board holding the reins and guiding his reindeer. She pointed it out and I looked to the skies and saw it just as she described it.

A month or two later she died. I could never get the Santa in the skies out of my mind and always related that sight to her dying. I know that wasn't the case now, but back then I was even afraid for a little while to look up at the cloud formations for fear of seeing Santa and his reindeer.

My mom took me to the Hernandez home for the wake of my friend. The room was filled with people and my little friend was lying on a table dressed all in white. I kept waiting for her to sit up, call my name, so we could go outside and play. The image of her in that white dress lying on that table stayed with me my entire life. The small room where her body lay smelled of the food that had been prepared for the wake and in the confined space the weeping and mourning of the Lakota women was nearly overwhelming and as my mother joined the cacophony of weeping, the tears immediately came to my eyes.

A Lakota Wicasa Wakan (Holy Man) stood by the table with the body of my friend. He held an Eagle feather in his hand and prayed aloud in the Lakota language. He did so even though back in those days the Lakota religion or spirituality had been outlawed by the U. S. Government. Yes my friends that did happen in America, the supposed land of religious freedom. What man does not understand man fears.

I have been to many funerals since that day many years ago. It seems that I lose a friend or acquaintance nearly every week. Oftentimes the image of a long ago friend or school mate pops into my head and I have to pause and wonder if they are still alive because they would have to be in their 70s or 80s if they were still alive. When we left school at the Holy Rosary Mission we scattered to the four directions. After all, we are Oglala, and Oglala means to "scatter their own."

The funeral I described at the beginning is still with me because on this mournful occasion Tommy Brewer and I nearly experienced a calamity. As our procession proceeded up the hill to the cemetery I glanced over at Tommy to make sure we were walking evenly and in step. At that very moment Tommy looked at me and tried to stifle a snicker. His actions hit me immediately and I had to bite down on my lip so hard to keep from laughing that I drew blood. Now wouldn't that have been a disaster if two altar boys broke out laughing in a funeral procession?

The last time I saw Tommy was at the funeral of his brother "Budger" Brewer and we stood outside of the church and had a good laugh over the time we nearly cracked up at a funeral. Tommy died a couple of years ago and when I attended his funeral my thoughts went back to the day we nearly broke up at a funeral. Diabetes, the scourge of the Indian Nations, claimed his life.

But even at his funeral, the reminder of Tommy choking back a chuckle as we led the funeral procession at Holy Rosary Mission brought a smile to my face.

Tim Giago is the Publisher of Native Sun News and can be reached at; he was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991.