Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Mortuary Rites - Cremation

Cremation could be either the final rite of disposal of a corpse, or it could be the only rite. Several examples were reported from North Queensland (Roth, 1907). In 1 example from the northern part of Cape York Peninsula, a young man had drowned and his body had been recovered and cremated. The head, a fibula and some other parts, that were not specified, were not burnt. By not burning some of the bones the dead person was prevented from returning.

In the area of the Lower Tully River, the dead person was tied up in a particular way then cremated, interred, desiccated, or parts of the body could be eaten. According to Rote, it appeared that specific ritual accompanied cremation only if the the dead person was of high status. If the corpse was of an ordinary person the body was simply thrown onto a pyre and cremated without ritual, after which the female relatives searched the ashes for relics.

It is suspected there may also have been more complicated procedures. In one instance reported, the skin and hair had been removed from a corpse and the hands were tied together. A man carries the body on his shoulder while others follow. When they reach the designated spot in the bush they prop the body against a tree and heap up some wood. The ceremony that follows includes a song about the coming inquest. This inquest takes place after the body has been taken to another place where it is placed on its back and the native doctor sits astride it. He made a number of incisions, removing the stomach, wrapping it in a paperbark, or in the bark blanket of the deceased. The identity of the murderer was divined using the stomach, after which it was buried, and the corpse was then cremated on the pyre.

Cremations were reported at Kew and Geelong in Victoria. In those areas it was said the body would be cremated if there was no time to dig a grave to bury it, when the deceased was a married woman, or an elderly person who had been strangled because they were physically of  no further use. The latter reason, if true, would be very unusual in Aboriginal Australia (Howitt, 1904; quoting other sources). There are very few cases of old people being killed in Australia.

Among the Victorian tribes, a body could be placed on a funeral pyre with its head to the east, and the belongings associated with the person were also placed on the pyre. If the deceased was a woman, her husband collected her bones after the body had been burnt, which he pounded into a powder to be carried around his neck in a possum skin pouch, either until he remarried or the pouch wore out, when it would be burnt (Howitt quoting Dawson).

In another instance, when the corpse was believed to be that of a headman, the bones of the lower leg and forearm are removed and cleaned, after which the body is bound in a flexed position then wrapped in a rug. It is placed in a hut with a smoking fire. While there it is fanned to keep the flies away, and after an unspecified length of time it is placed on a tree platform. Eventually it is cremated, after which the bones are pounded into powder then kept in small bags.

At Mt Macedon, the King River, Ovens River and the Murray River the people are reported to have cremated their dead, the bones being gathered and placed in a hollow tree (Howitt).

Cremation was practiced by the Katungal (associated with the Yuin) in the Port Jackson area. In this area cremation was used for stillborn babies or very young children.

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: 15/04/2013
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