Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Mortuary Rites - Interment

Interment was by far the most common method of disposal of a corpse in Aboriginal Australia, though sometimes only part of a sequence. In the Ooldea region, bodies have been observed in which the hair had been removed and shaped into a coit-shaped object, then doubled up and bound (Berndt & Harvey Johnston, 1942; R. & c. Berndt, 1942-5). The corpse of a man would be prevented from throwing a spear in the afterlife by having his spear arm tied to his side. The body was then carried to a selected site where it was placed on a bed of leaves in a round shallow grave, the head facing the east. It was then covered with leaves and bushes, and finally logs, but not with sand or earth. Nearby a conical mound was built that was named after the Moon. Moon had been the first man to be killed in the Dreamtime. After a period that ranged from 3 months to about 2 years the burial party returned, comprising the people who originally placed the body in the grave, and removed the remains. The actions of the burial party could then involve removing the bones, cleaning them and replacing them in the grave, or they could rub their bodies with the exudate. They then filled in the grave with earth and sand and covered it with heavy logs.

In the southeastern parts of Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and eastern South Australia, grave mounds were constructed. Sometimes the bones were later moved to another site. One instance was observed in which the bones were moved to a side chamber of the same mound. Among some tribes in southwestern Australia, and in northwestern New South Wales and southeastern Queensland, mythogically significant conventional designs are carved into trees around the grave. In western Arnhem Land, grass or paperbark figures are placed near a deserted camp after a death, with 1 arm pointing to the new camp, the other to the corpse, that was usually on a platform. In parts of south Australia, such as the Adelaide, Gawler and Gumeracha districts, the corpse is interred in an upright position, wrapped in a wallaby rug that is packed with leaves and boughs. At the head of the grave, earth or stones are arranged in the shape of a crescent (Howitt, 1904).

Among some tribes, such as the Tongaranka of western New South Wales, the corpse was placed in the grave in a sitting position, and the person's belongings were also placed in the grave. The nearest male relative of the deceased person stands by the grave, that was still open, and was struck by the edge of a boomerang several times until blood dripped onto the corpse. The grave was then filled in. The dripping of the blood has been suggested to be a propitiatory rite, possibly to appease the spirit and, in the event of it being accused of sorcery, to assure its innocence. It has also been suggested that it may be connected with rebirth, at least of the spirit, as blood symbolises life.

Near the Darling River, on the upper Murray River, the Wiimbaio wrapped the corpse in a rug or blanket and placed it into a 6 ft hole, that is then packed with twigs and bark, after which it is covered with sand. The grave is then covered with a pile of wood, above which rushes or soft grass are heaped, tapering at the top, being held together with old netting or string. Fires are kept burning on either side of the grave to keep the dead person warm.

Near Swan Hill, on the Upper Murray River, among the Wathi-wathi the headman was buried in a cleared area that had been fenced with logs and brush. The grave was covered with bark sheets in the form of a hut, including a ridge pole in the centre.

In western Victoria, the Wotjobaluk tied the corpses, with crossed arms and knees up to the chest, after placing his spear thrower on his chest he is rolled up in his possum fur rug. In this case the grave was oblong, a layer of bark on the bottom, covered with leaves and strands of possum pelt. The corpse is then placed in the grave. The body was then covered with a lot of leaves and pelt, above which is more bark. After the grave is filled with earth, logs were then placed on top to prevent dogs from digging up the body. A nearby fire is kept burning. The next day an oval-shaped clearing  was prepared around the grave, in which are parallel soil ridges. Earthworks over certain graves have been reported (Worsnop, 1897), though the Berndts were uncertain how accurate these reports were.

Corpses were buried in a horizontal position among the Laragia, usually being placed on their right side, with the head on the hands and the legs up against the trunk, covered with bark sheets and grass, and finally with earth, though a small gap is left at the side for the spirit to leave and return if it wants to (Basedow, 1925).

Among the Dieri, food was placed at a grave of an influential man. In winter a fire was kept burning to keep him warm. The corpse was wrapped in a rug or net, its big toes tied together. It was buried after it was asked to name the person responsible for its death (Howitt, ibid., 448).

The Port Jackson tribes practised canoe burials in which a body was placed in a canoe that was prepared specially for the burial, together with a fishing spear and spear thrower and waistband. The canoe was carried to the burial site on the heads of 2 people (Howitt, Quoting Collins)

The Aranda seated a corpse in a round hole, with its knees drawn up to its chin. The earth that fills the hole is mounded up over the grave, with a depression of the side facing the deceased person's totemic territory. In particular, the sacred site associated with the conception of the person. It was believed the spirit spent part of the time until the final mourning ceremony watching over close relatives, the rest of its time being spent in the company of its spirit double, its arumburinga that lives in the dreaming site. The depression allowing easy access for the spirit (Spencer & Gillen, 1938).

The most spectacular burial sites in Australia were on Melville Island and Bathurst Island. Above a grave, a mound is heaped with stringy bark sheets (Spencer, 1914; Mountford, 1958). Tree trunks are carved into large grave posts, 3-4 of which are erected as part of the first mourning ceremony that takes place several months after the burial, and about 12 are later added at intervals.

The Gagadju (Kakadu) wrapped the body in paperbark, then took it into the bush to where a trench had been prepared with a thick layer of grass and leaves. It was placed on its right side, its legs bent back at the knees (Spencer, ibid., 240-9). It is then covered with another layer of grass and leaves, then earth is built up into a small mounded over the grave, then stones are heaped on it to prevent dogs from reaching it. After the burial is complete, the bark that was used to carry the body to the bush is used to wrap the persons belongings, that are taken back to the camp, where they are placed in a tree. A purification rite is then carried out in which the belongings of all the people in the camp affected by the death are smoked and water is poured over the heads of the men. The possessions of the deceased person, as well as the burial covering, are burnt. The men are then painted with charcoal and older men eat lily-seed cake. There is then a second sequence in which the personal belongings of all the camp members are placed in 2 heaps, one for women and the other for the men. The women wear armlets and the older men eat more lily-seed cake. All the men who had previously painted themselves black, with the exception of the immediate kin of the deceased person, now painted themselves white. After some time a third sequence takes place in which belongings and food are brought, and all are painted in red ochre. The men speculate about who was responsible for the death, then, after the women and children have returned to camp, the men eat then arrange bundles of spears on the ground, and the sequence is finalised by the bartering of the spears.

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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