Traditions meld in funeral rites for Navajoland Bishop Steven Plummer

April 8, 2005

In a service that combined Episcopal and Navajo traditions, the Rt. Rev. Steven Tsosie Plummer, Bishop of Navajoland, was laid to rest in a family burial plot on Wednesday, April 6.

An estimated congregation of 300, including 10 bishops, participated in the requiem Mass, which was celebrated in English and Navajo.

Plummer, the first elected bishop of Navajoland and the first Navajo to serve as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, died April 2 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 60.

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold was celebrant at the requiem Mass held at St. Christopher's Church in Bluff, Utah, where Plummer had served as vicar.

Griswold was also one of several homilists who commented on Plummer's life and ministry.

Griswold said he appreciated the Navajo bishop's "gentle wisdom" and the "way in which he could see the humor in situations when other people were terribly serious."

Bishop Mark MacDonald of Alaska, who formerly served under Plummer in Navajoland, called Plummer "a great leader" in the Native American tradition.

He said Plummer continued to show courage and "kept moving forward" in spite of "many obstacles" in his life. He told those in the congregation "that it is now up to us to see what he saw -- and to go for it."

Plummer worked to meld Navajo and Episcopal traditions in worship and spirituality and to encourage indigenous leadership within Navajoland. Bishop Rustin Kimsey, retired bishop of Eastern Oregon and another homilist, said the Episcopal Church needs to learn more from the Navajo about spirituality.

The liturgy included symbolic and traditional Navajo offerings from each of the three regions-Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico-within Navajoland. Helping to mark its intercultural nature, a bagpiper in kilts played "Amazing Grace" as Plummer's body was taken from the church and placed in the hearse for transport to the burial site.

Griswold and Kimsey presided at the graveside committal service, which included the traditional Prayer Book liturgy along with prayers in Navajo and the music of a Navajo flute.

In keeping with Navajo tradition, several of Plummer's personal effects, including extra clothing and his medicine, were tossed into the grave on top of the coffin. Family members and others in the congregation, including Bishop Kimsey, took turns at filling in the grave.