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The Death And Dying Beliefs Of Australian Aborigines Essay, Research Paper

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

istruly 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 alink

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 howto

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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