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While reporting on the life of Barona tribe member Roxann Argazzi, whose obituary I wrote earlier this week, I noticed that gifts played an important role in the grieving that followed her death.

They are the idea behind the ritual burning ceremony, which families on the reservation perform three days after a person’s death.

Barbara Turner, Argazzi’s sister, said it was important that all of Argazzi’s personal items — except documents and pictures — be burned. The family might make an individual exception for an especially meaningful memento.

“But we burn everything — even clothes that still have the tags. Even the bed,” she said.

When her father, tribal elder William Banegas, died 12 years ago, his family packed all of his belongings into his truck, removed the gas tank to prevent an explosion, and set it on fire in front of his house.

“A lot of people would say, ‘It’s such a waste, especially to burn new clothes,’” Turner said. “For us, we believe it’s important that we send them with gifts to give to our family on the other side.”

Behind the wrought-iron gate of the small Barona Cemetery on the morning of Argazzi’s funeral, a group of about a dozen sturdy men — Argazzi’s family and friends — used shovels to fill her grave with impressive speed. Then they used the shovels to shape the resulting three-foot mound into a rectangular platform.

When the dust settled, a procession of women approached the grave carrying the dozens of flower arrangements that had adorned the viewing ceremony the night before. They covered the dirt platform in flowers. Then they sprinkled it with bagfuls of gifts — items that Argazzi had loved during her life: bottles of lotion, packs of cigarettes, flip-flops.

Argazzi’s nephew, Steven Banegas, rose to thank people for coming, and he invited those who were not family to approach the grave and take the gifts. Within minutes, only the flowers remained.

“The gifts are important,” Turner said. “During the burning ceremony, they’re for the family,” she said, “and at the funeral they’re for everyone else.”

— ADRIAN FLORIDO

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