Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Mortuary Rites - Platform and Tree Disposal

This has been called delayed disposal. As soon as a person dies in northeastern and north-central Arnhem Land, the body is covered with red ochre. The clan and linguistic group totemic patterns are painted on the face, chest and abdomen of the body. The painting is done so the spirit beings in the Land of the Dead can easily see to which clan or sacred well the deceased person belongs (Warner, 1937/58: 416). Most of the hair is cut, to be woven into a hairbelt interwoven with feathers later, the remainder is covered with white clay. All the belongings of the deceased person are arranged about the body, as well as sacred feathered string and carved objects, as part of the first mortuary ceremony. Later, the death messengers will take these carved objects to notify kinsfolk in distant places of the death of the person. At the time of the first mortuary ceremony a feast was held. During this feast no food is set aside for the spirit, in the hope it will be compelled to leave the earthly surroundings it is familiar with. To assist in the driving away of the spirit, the mourners brush themselves with smoking green leaves to purify themselves. A platform is constructed and the body is carried out into the and placed on it face-up on a specially prepared platform. If the diseased is a woman, models of her children, grandchildren or other close relatives, in paperbark or bound grass, are placed on each side of the body. The deceased is assumed to have been killed by someone, and the fluids dripping from the platform are used to divine the identity of the person responsible for the death. Other rites are carried out later (Warner, 1937/58: 412-33).

The upper Georgina district of Queensland. The dead person is placed on a platform, wrapped in a net, and covered with sticks and bushes, along with his or her possessions (Roth, 1897, 165-6; 1907). The tribes around the Brisbane area also sometimes practised platform disposal. It was a common method for persons considered 'unimportant'. According to Roth, the genitalia are removed to prevent the spirit from having sexual relations with the living", the body is tied up and placed on a platform that has been constructed in the bush, the feet towards the west. The dead person's belongings are stuck into the ground and a small fire is lit under the platform so that the spirit can hunt and cook its own food. The identity of the murderer is revealed by divination, the area around the platform being inspected for footprints on the following day. 2-3 months later the bones are collected, some being burnt and others tested to confirm the murder's identity.

In northern New South Wales, the Wollaroi people sat beneath the platform as fluid drips from the corpse, rubbing it over themselves to gain strength. Once the flesh has decomposed away, the bones are buried (Howitt, 1904; 467). Examples of tree and platform disposal are given in which the bones are finally buried (Spencer, 1914; 249-52).

The Waramunga build a small platform in a the branches of a tree, eventually burying all but the smaller arm bones, they used these in sorcery (Spencer & Gillen, 1938; 498).

In the eastern Kimberleys, the corpse on the platform in a tree is covered with paperbark, branches and stones, remans being left on the platform until only bones remain (Kaberry, 1959: 212-14).

It has been observed that this form of disposal was practised throughout the northwestern part of Australia, in Arnhem Land, and from Wyndham to Darwin, south to about the centre and eastward into Queensland. It is always associated with bone collection, as well as the subsequent mourning rites, and the rites associated with an inquest.

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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