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The death and dying practices of the australian aborigines

The Death and Dying Beliefs of Australian Aborigines

Although the Aborigines are often classified as a primitive race whose religion is based upon animism and totemism like the American Indians, the Aboriginal funeral practices and beliefs about death have much in common with other cultures. This paper will discuss the death and dying beliefs of the Aborigines that share a common thread with many popular religions of today. Aboriginal beliefs in death and dying are original in that they combine all these beliefs in a different way. The purpose of looking at the commonalties is to examine the shared foundations of all religions by investigating the aspect of death and dying in a very localized and old set of beliefs.

As in many religions, Aborigines share a belief in a celestial Supreme Being. During a novice's initiation, he learns the myth of Daramulun, which means "Father," who is also called Biamban, or "Master." Long ago, Daramulun dwelt on earth with his mother. The earth was barren and sterile. There were no human beings, only animals. Daramulun created the ancestors of the tribes and taught them how to live. He gave them the laws that are handed down from father to son, founded the initiation ceremonies and made the bull-roarer, the sound of which imitates his voice. It is Daramulun that gives the medicine men their powers. When a man dies, it is Daramulun who cares for his spirit. This belief was witnessed before the intervention of Christian missionaries. It is also used only in the most secret initiations of which women know nothing and are very central to the archaic and genuine religious and social traditions. Therefore it is doubtful that this belief was due to missionary propaganda but is truly a belief of the Aborigines (Eliade, 1973).

Another belief that is reminiscent of the Christian faith is that death came into being only because the communications between heaven and earth had been violently interrupted. When Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden, death came into existence. This belief of the origin of death is common to many archaic religions where communication with heaven and its subsequent interruption is related to the ancestor's loss of immortality or of his original paradisal situation (Eliade, 1973).

The Australian ritual re-enactment of the "Creation" has a striking parallel in post-Vedic India. The brahmanic sacrifice repeats what was done in the beginning, at the moment of creation, and it is only because of the strict uninterrupted performance of the sacrifice that the world continues and periodically renews itself. It is only be identifying himself with the sacrifice that man can conquer death. The ritual ensures the continuation of cosmic life and at the same time introduces initiates to a sacred history that ultimately will reveal the meaning of their lives (Charlesworth, 1984).

The Egyptian concept of the soul has many similarities to the totemic cosmology of the Dreamtime. Unlike Christian philosophy, in which the soul is a possession of the individual, the Egyptians conceived of the soul as an aspect of a cosmological process. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Aborigines consider the perceivable world an incarnation or projection of similar realities that exist in a universal, spiritual sphere. For them, the human soul shares the threefold nature of the soul of the creating spirits: a universal soul, a natural soul of the species, and a unique individual soul. After death the soul of each person merges first with the spirit species of nature's soul before merging with its ancestral source in the Dreaming (Lawlor, 1991).

In the Aboriginal tradition, death, burial and afterlife are rich in meaning and metaphysical interpretation. Aborigines use a wide variety of burial practices, including all of those known to have been used in other parts of the world, as well varieties not practiced anywhere else. Although these rites vary, all Australian Aborigines share many fundamental ideas about death and its relationship to life.

The most fundamental concept of death in the Aboriginal tradition is the doctrine of three worlds, the unborn, the living, and the dying, and the Land of the Dead. Therefore their concepts of death are their concepts of life. Each individual passes through these domains only once. After death it is the profound responsibility of the living to ensure that the spiritual component of the dead person is separated from this world and can proceed to the next. The Aborigines believe, as do Native Americans, that the notion of reincarnation depends on two factors: (1) the obsession with the illusion of individuality extends into the belief that the ego survives death and remains intact in the afterlife; (2) such cultures have lost the knowledge of burial practices that assist the spiritual energy of the deceased to separate from the earthly sphere, and so the spiritual atmosphere is polluted with fragmented, disembodied, energies of the dead. Fragments of spirit from the dead can interact with the living, sometimes inhabiting, shadowing or controlling conscious behavior and destiny. The Aborigines say that the atmosphere of the earth is now saturated with dead spirits and that this pollution parallels the physical pollution of the biosphere -- both of which contribute to the self-destructive course of civilization (Lawlor, 1991).

The second universally held Aboriginal belief about death is that at the moment of death, the spiritual component of the individual splits into three distinct parts. This is similar to the Egyptian concept of the soul. Unlike Christian philosophy, in which the soul is a possession of the individual, the Egyptians conceived of the soul as an aspect of a cosmological process. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Aborigines consider the perceivable world an incarnation or projection of similar realities that exist in a universal, spiritual sphere. For them, the human soul shares the threefold nature of the soul of the creating spirits: a totemic soul, an ancestral soul and the ego soul. The totemic soul is related to the sources of the life of the body: the earthly location of the birth and the spirit of the animal and plant species to which the person's bloodlines are connected and from which he or she has derived nourishment throughout life. After death, the totemic soul essence, once incorporated in the psychic and physical makeup of a person, is returned in ceremonial ritual to the spirits of nature. Returning spiritual energy to the animating forces of the totemic species reciprocates the debt to all those living things that were sacrificed for the sake of humans. The second aspect of an individual's spirit force that is released at death is called the ancestral soul. This is the aspect of the deceased's soul that emanates from the Ancestor's journeys to the constellations in a particular part of the sky. Each region of the heavens has not only a pictorial constellation, usually an animal, but also a particular pattern of invisible energy. These patterns are symbolized in the geometric clan designs painted on the abdomen of the corpse during burial rites. The same clan design was painted on the person at the time of his or her first initiation. At the person's initiation and at the time of death, the celebrants chant, "May from here your spirit reach to the stomach of the sky." The third aspect is referred to by the Aborigines as the Trickster. It is the spiritual source of the individualized ego and can be characterized as the ego soul. It is the spirit force bound to locality and to the finite. At the time of death, the Trickster is the most dangerous with which to deal. It resents death, because this change removes contact from the material or local world in which it functions. It may become stuck in this world after the other aspects of the soul have departed. The ego soul works throughout its life to plant the possibilities of an earthly immortality. The totem soul, ego soul, and ancestral soul correspond to the cosmic trinity of the unborn, the living and the dying, and the Land of the Dead, as well was to the earthly order of species, place and clan (Lawlor, 1991).

In many aspects of Aboriginal life, the concentration is on the interaction between the visible and the invisible, the external world and the Dreamtime reality. The Aboriginal view of death is not any different. The Aborigines consider dying to be a constant complementary process to life, both in a biological sense and in the sense of death throughout initiation. Following physical death, the most significant stage of the dying process begins: the spirit dies away from the earthly atmosphere in a process that can take months, even years (Lawlor, 1991). In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the spirit takes only twelve hours to leave the corpse, but there is also the delay in the spirit leaving the body after death (Parry, 1995).

After an Aborigine dies, the news is quickly communicated to all clan groups, no matter how distant, in which kin members are living. The messengers approach distant groups and display the collection of clan totemic designs with which the deceased was affiliated. The displays alert people in the camp of their kin relationship and their responsibilities to the dead person. The messengers may also sing songs that hint at the person's identity, but they never reveal the name (Lawlor, 1991).

In some tribes, certain mourners must not speak for some time, and in all, the name of the dead may not be mentioned for months or even years. The taboo against pronouncing the name of the dead is strictly observed because it is believed that the vibratory pattern of the person's name can act as a hook or anchor to which the spiritual energy of the deceased can attach itself and thereby remain on earth (Lawlor, 1991). In addition, any persons or objects bearing the same name must no longer be referred to by that name (Elkin, 1964). In traditional cultures, name avoidance may prevent provocation of the spirit. Whereas in today's societies, avoidance of a name may avoidance of pain due to loss (DeSpelder, 1996). Widowed Aboriginal women also maintain vows of silence, even after remarriage, to publicly express sorrow. Many of these women will communicate to one another in sign language. In Indian yoga, vows of silence are believed to instigate rapid inner changes. This aspect of silence would benefit Aboriginal women, who must completely restructure their lives when they move from one marriage to another (Lawlor, 1991). In many other cultures, women have distinct restrictions placed on them after a death. An Islamic widow must wait four months and ten days before remarrying (Parry, 1995).

Some generalizations found throughout the Aboriginal tribes are that the actions of those associated with a dying or dead person are regulated by certain forms of social organization, or in particular, the kinship system, generation or age-levels, moiety and cult group. When a person is dying, people watch nearby or at a distance, according to relationship rules; they wail or chant, gash and draw blood from themselves, and maybe throw themselves on the sick person. After death, all of this emotion is usually intensified and often a state of frenzy is reached (Elkin, 1964). Sorrow and grief are highly dramatized in Aboriginal society. Much like Muslim women who are infamous for their dramatic wailings as a release of grief, both men and women wail and lament long after the death of a relative. The tearful demonstrations continue until "they become empty of grief." Grieving is sometimes accompanied by ritual wounding. Bloodletting, like emotion, is an outpouring of spirit into a larger reality. In the dramatization of sorrow, both spirit and blood escape the body in an acknowledgment of the suffering and death that universally befell humankind (Lawlor, 1991). This is not only a sign of real or standardized grief but also of the disturbance of the general sense of well-being. It is also a reaction to the magical death-dealing forces that are ever about and had just been put into effective operation (Elkin, 1964).

The feeling of sorrow expands from the individual and society to include a relationship to the land. When someone dies, the places of conception, birth, initiation, marriage, and death of the person receive as much respect and attention as the deceased relative. In this way, grieving moves beyond the individual's death and becomes more a catalyst for remembering places and events and myths associated with those places. The rule in Aboriginal society is to avoid, for a long time, the place where a kin has died, until the memory has faded in intensity. Approaching the death site of a recently deceased relative would imply disrespect. During their absence from these sites, the Aborigines dramatically express nostalgia for the features of that countryside. Often the demonstrations of grief need not be spontaneous or authentic, yet they express a continuing relationship that the living have to the dead. The emotion of grief must be fully released, since any sorrow withheld in the psyche would form a link to which the deceased spirit might cling (Lawlor, 1991). Gradually the heightened emotions and rage die down and come under control as they become centered in traditional manner. After this initial display of grief, the body is attended to and is usually shifted at once to the place of burial or preparation for the burial (Elkin, 1964).

There is a standardized process of grief followed by the Aborigines. The self-inflicted pain and loud lamentings are not a measure of the grief actually felt. To a certain extent, the excessive display is due to tribal custom and as such has a very strong hold upon the imagination of a people whose every action is bound and limited by custom. There is also the fear that unless a sufficient amount of grief is displayed, he will be harmed by the offended spirit of the dead person (Spencer, 1968).

All religions have some sort of purification rituals. The Jews have many laws detailing ritual cleanliness and in the Hindu caste system those who touch the dead are the lowest caste (Parry, 1995). For the Aborigines, everything that was associated with the dead person is destroyed, avoided or purified. The campsite where the person died is deserted by the group, and the exact place of death is examined by the tribal elders and then marked completely deserted for years (Lawlor, 1991). Though he will no longer need his body as a means of action, it is weighted down, tied up, or the legs are broken so that he will not be able to wander. A zigzag path is followed to and from the grave site at the time of burial, or a smoke screen is passed through so that the spirit of the dead will not be able to follow the mourners (Elkin, 1964). Even in the Roman Empire, the burial customs reflected the belief that the dead might come back and haunt the living (DeSpelder, 1996). Those who take part in the burial are brushed with smoking twigs, and the wives who were closely associated with the diseased during his lifetime, are usually separated from the general camp for a prescribed period of time.. Food taboos are observed and there are special ones adopted because the food was the deceased's totem or was one of which he was fond. In all these ways, the deceased, the thought of death and the gap caused by it are banished from consciousness. When the various taboos have been lifted, the widow is remarried or the widower resumes his habitual ways of living and society regains its equilibrium. The society "bequeaths to the past the associations of death, and faces the future with renewed hope and courage." (Elkin, 1964)

Burial practices of the Aborigines are meant to prepare the spirit of the dead person for its new life as well as a mark of respect. Within the Arunta tribe, the body is buried in a relatively short period of time. It is placed in a sitting position with the knees doubled up against the chin and is interred in a round hole in the ground. The earth is pile directly onto the body so as to make a low mound with a depression on one side (van Beek, 1975). There are many forms of burial used by the Aborigines. These forms include interment, mummification, cremation, platform-exposure and delayed burial, and burial in hollow trees. There is a wide spread distribution of a two-fold burial procedure, with the consequent lengthening of the time of the mourning ritual. So persistent is the idea that it is seen in many forms. The different combinations include platform exposure and delayed burial, mummification and final disposal, interment and disinterment for later mourning over bones, and in the removal of bones from one grave to another. Such procedures emphasize the significance of death and the length of time the society requires to adjust itself to the death (Elkin, 1964).

Although Aboriginal burial are usually long and elaborate and the disposal of the corpse can be complex, the ritual focuses on the spiritual ramifications of death, not physical disposal or preservation. The primary goal of Aboriginal funeral rites is to safeguard the well-being of the living. The correct funeral procedures and rituals are valued for their benefit to the living (Lawlor, 1991).

As in ancient Egyptian and other traditions, the Aboriginal journey to the other world is imagined in a sacred bark or spirit canoe with a mythic ferryman at its helm. Water itself is often used symbolically and associated with death, especially in African culture (Parry, 1995). The ancient Greeks also had such a belief with the skeletal ferryman, Charon, who travels the River Styx to the Underworld. The spirit canoe sets out across the sea to the island of the dead. In many world myths the helmsman is an important figure at the beginning of the journey toward death. In the Aboriginal belief, he is always abusive. He beats the men and rapes or demands sex with women. The beating or rape by the helmsman symbolizes the severe assault and trauma the consciousness undergoes in its initial separation from the body (Lawlor, 1991).

Most of the initiation rituals in Aboriginal society follow a pattern of death and rebirth. For example, a novice dies to the profane world of childhood and irresponsible innocence, the world of ignorance, and prepares himself for rebirth as a spiritual being, much as Christians receive a new soul at First Holy Communion. The tribe understands this death literally and mourns over the novices as the dead are mourned (Eliade, 1973). The Aborigine sees life in death and is exposed to it throughout his lifetime in the initiation processes that allow an internal experience of the journey from life to the realm of the dead. The African-American approach to death is also as a rite of passage where the soul passes into another phase (Parry, 1995). The American society denies death and views it as a threat to life. The Aborigine, on the other hand, understands the spiritual reality of death and its necessity. To the Aborigine, it is impossible to understand how to exist in this life without knowing how to exist in death and therefore it is once again apparent that the society's views on death are reflected by their views of life. The world only has meaning to the degree that Death and the Unborn have meaning. To deny or distort the purpose and meaning of one is to deny the same for all (van Beek, 1975).

The Aborigines have very defined rituals and expectations dealing with the death of a person. They also have highly evolved meanings to accompany their rituals. Although this paper has shown many similarities between other religions and that of the Aborigines, they have their own distinct compilations of these beliefs and practices. Their standardized grief process, concepts of an afterlife and burial practices are not foreign to today's American society when looking at the meaning and purpose behind their death and dying practices. Certain human emotions manifest themselves across many cultures in their death practices and in the end differences are often in the technicalities when the significance stays the same. However this is not always apparent to people from different religions and can cause certain religions to be labeled primitive and the people to be called savages.


Charlesworth, M., H. Morphy, D. Bell, and K. Maddock. Religion in Aboriginal Australia. Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1984.

DeSpleder, L. A., A. L. Strickland. The Last Dance; Encountering Death and Dying. London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1996.

Eliade, M. Australian Religions: An Introduction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973.

Elkin, A. P. The Australian Aborigines. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1964.

Lawlor, R. Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1991.

Parry, J. K., A. S. Ryan. A Cross-Cultural Look at Death, Dying, and Religion. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1995.

Spencer, B., and F. J. Gillen. The Native Tribes of Central Australia. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1968.

van Beek, W. E. A., J. H. Scherer. Explorations in the Anthropology of Religion. Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975.

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