Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Death and the Afterlife

According to the Berndts, a pervasive belief life after death, which is better described as the persistence of life as they experience it on Earth, though at a different level or in a different form. They see the afterlife as a different facet of human existence. This belief throughout Aboriginal Australia is indicated by the various forms of mortuary ritual, that includes the treatment of the corpse. They perceived death as a transition to another life that is not completely different from the one they have left when they died. This appears to apply even to cases where a person is believed to have more than one spirit or soul. After death, the new situation was seen as not too different from the person's earthly life in which he or she had many roles. In death, 1 part of him may move to the Land of the Dead, or return to the site where spirit children await rebirth, or merge with the great ancestral and creative beings, etc., while another part of him or her may play the role of a spirit trickster.

The symbolic death and rebirth so prominent in much of the ritual connected with initiation ceremonies foreshadows the transition at death. For men, this is part of their experience as they pass through the rituals of initiation. For women, on the other hand, knowledge of most of this is obtained vicariously, and by hearsay, as they are excluded from all but the most mundane of ritual and mythology, the more scared aspects being exclusively men's business. This is said by some to be, at least partially, to protect the "weak" women from dangerous knowledge that could harm them. The symbolic death and rebirth is for all a preparation for actual death, that would be followed by emergence of the spirit.

In a sense, mortuary rites are equivalent to initiation, as they focus on the transition of the deceased person to a new phase of existence. They force the deceased person away from their previous existence, through the procedures and rituals of the mortuary processes, making it clear that for all general purposes the persons ties of his previous life have been severed. It is believed that the deceased person does not always leave willingly, the person sometimes finding it difficult to abandon his bonds of affection and habit. They break the bonds ritually, and irrevocably, though with some qualifications. As with any human society, there are always some of people who have difficulty accepting the loss of the deceased person. This reluctance to ket the dead go was expressed to the Berndts by a woman from Goulbourn Island, who said disposal of the body on a platform was cleaner than if it was interred, and they sometimes go to look at their loved-one.

They carry around of the bones of a dead person for long periods is an example of the difficulty of letting go. There is also the belief that too close an association with the dead person could prevent the spirit from carrying on with its own affairs, and upsetting the mourners could cause them to take a long time to settle back into normal life. The spirit could also harass the living. To prevent this from happening, the Gunwinggu stuffed the ears and nostrils of the dead person with soft paperbark "to stop him from thinking of us, so he will go forever". The local term for any recently dead person is 'he or she who is far away'. When a man dies, his widow washes her body to remove any of his sweat that may be on her, the purification rites here are in a mortuary context, as in other parts of Australia. All have the aim of lessening the risk to ordinary persons, that could be high if ritual precautions are not taken. The only person deemed to be able to handle the association between the living and the dead safely is a native doctor.


Sources & Further reading

  1. R. M & C. H. Berndt, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd, 1964
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 23/10/2010 


Journey Back Through Time
Experience Australia
Aboriginal Australia
National Parks
Photo Galleries
Site Map
                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading