Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Mortuary Rites - Disposal of the Body

There are a number of ways of disposing of a body, different areas preferring a particular method, though sometimes more than one method could be used in any given area. Among the methods of body disposal were burial, exposure on a platform or a tree, desiccation-mummification, cremation, in a hollow tree, a construction that has been called a coffin, burial cannibalism, reburial or secondary burial (see King Island). As the various methods are not usually mutually exclusive, the bones may be collected then either carried around or reburied. The body could be placed on a platform until it decomposed following which the bones were recollected and placed in a cave or a hollow log.

An instance of one form of this practice was told to my family by my great grandmother. After arriving from Ireland in 1882 they settled in Maryborough, Queensland. My great grandparents befriended some of the local Aboriginal People and one particular woman they often invited to their home was known as Kitty Biglip, because of an ornament she wore in her lip. I don't know if any of the family knew her Aboriginal name. My family sometimes invited their Aboriginal friends to Sunday dinner (midday). One day after her husband died Kitty arrived with his bones in a dilly bag, I think it was carried around her neck, but I'm not sure. I don't know if that was the normal practice among the Aboriginal People in the Maryborough area.

In the Grampians area of Victoria, the Mukjarawaint left a corpse in the camp for a few days, then the body was bound with the knees drawn up, the elbows against the sides and the hands on the shoulders. It was then placed in a hollow tree (Howitt, ibid., 453, 459).

The corpse was bound in the same way by the Kurnai, but they carried the bound body around for some time before being placed in a hollow tree.

The Yerkla-mining (Eucla) were said to never bury their dead, the dying person being left beside a fire, the rest of the people in the camp moved to another camp (Howitt, ibid., 450).

Rock shelters were used instead of hollow trees on the Keppel Islands. On the smaller islands around Broadsound the people were said to take their dead out to sea in canoes and throw them overboard (Roth, 1907, 398).

If an unauthorised trespasser was killed in the northern Kimberleys, the local people place the body in a hole dug in a termite mound. The termites soon repair the damage and there is no evidence that could lead a avenging party to the culprits (Basedow, 1925: 206). The Berndts reported hearing of this practice in the East Kimberleys.

When a baby died in the western Arnhem Land, its body was placed in a termite mound so the bones would quickly disintegrate freeing its spirit to return to the same mother to be born again. Sometimes the mother would carry some of the baby's bones around with her so that its spirit could enter her to be reborn.

It was reported by Roth (1897: 165; 1907: 395) (believed to be referring to the Boulia area of Queensland) that a person sentenced to death by the tribal council for a serious offence was obliged to dig his own grave.

When men were killed in tribal fighting, their bodies could be left where they fell, broken spears of boomerangs being left nearby to indicate how they died.

A man speared for breaking a sacred law could be left where he fell, in parts of the Northern Territory, Daly River and Arnhem Land. This punishment not only deprived him of his life, but also the usual mortuary rites, that could be considered the most serious part of the punishment.

In South Australia, among the people on the Lower River Murray, after a body had been smoke dried it was treated as if it had been repossessed by its spirit when it was used in the inquest rites.

In Queensland, the Wakelbura carried around the remains of close relatives, though during ceremonies it could be placed against a tree, a red band tied around the bundle in the position of the head, as though it was watching the dancers (Howitt, 1904: 473).

Among the Gadjalibi and neighbouring tribes in north-central Arnhem land, where the corpse, usually a man but occasionally a woman, would be painted and decorated as though it was a participant in the mortuary ceremony, designs in pipeclay on the face and a small red basket hanging from the neck. The body was tied to a pole in a sitting or standing position as the relatives sing and dance in front of him, calling out to him to join in. In particular, those to who he was a mother's mother's brother or a sister's daughter's son joke and laugh at him, telling him to get up and join in the dancing. This is his last chance to return, though only a symbolic chance, as they show they are willing to accept him back but it is his choice not to return. 1 or 2 days later they wrap the body in preparation for either burial or platform disposal. After some time the bones were collected, being kept for some time before the final ceremony. During the final part of the process the bones are shown and presented to his closest relatives, and possibly his wife.

The spirits on this island of Bralgu send out Morning Stars to different parts of Arnhem Land as they dance. In the Dua moiety mortuary Ritual of the Morning Star a large pole is used on which are feathered strings and balls of seagull feathers to represent the stars. The actions of the living people in this ritual was said to be an imitation of that carried out by spirits of the dead on Bralgu.

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 21/10/2010 



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