“For us Native Americans we need to be together, eat, share stories, and pray so that our loved ones who are dead can reach out to the Creator,” said Robert Gill, a funeral director from Buffalo, Minnesota, and a resident of the Sisseton tribe of the Wahpeton Oyate.

Mr Gill said he kept some bodies for months to give people an opportunity to organize a larger funeral. When these gatherings finally take place, attendees will be served “liquor platters” – with ancestral favorite dishes such as fried ribs, aronia jam and fried buffalo.

Many families use the extended planning periods to create detailed reminders.

Frederick Harris, a Vietnam War veteran, loved Smirnoff vodka with grapefruit juice and Motown music, so daughter Nicole Elizabeth, 34, will serve and play at his memorial ceremony in Hadley, Massachusetts later that year.

“It’s daunting to plan because I want to be fun and be able to share memories with so many people,” she said. “But I hope it will bring me some peace, because for many of us it was just that limbo.”

About 60 people attended church in June to honor the father of Mrs. Zimmerman-Selvidge. Those present passed a microphone over the benches and exchanged memories of him.

Finally it was his daughter’s turn. Mrs. Zimmermann-Selvidge sighed. “He loved us all so much,” she said, then paused.

Her father’s urn was on a table in front of her. In her purse was a letter she had forced herself to receive after his death.

It started with words that were sometimes too painful to say out loud, “I miss you”.