Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Death Ritual

Chants of the totemic lodge of a dying person are sung as he is dying. This was done to both comfort him and help him reconcile himself to his imminent return to the spirit world. This ritual was practised in some parts of the north and in South Australia (Elkin, 1937: 285; 1954: 299). Mourners camp near the grave in some places, as in the northeast of South Australia. Over a number of days it takes to complete the totemic cycle, sacred songs being sung by his kin every day, and every day small amounts of earth are added to the grave until it is filled in.

These ceremonies are very complex and spectacular in some places, such as the northeastern and north-central Arnhem Land (Spencer, 1914; Warner, 1937/58; Elkin, Bedrndt & Berndt, 1950). The nature of such a ceremony from eastern Arnhem Land was described in which many people gathered around a symbolic waterhole and patch of country that was marked out with low mounds and depressions. The people included members of the clan and moiety of the decreased person, the husband or wives and their kin.

The singing and invocation of the sacred names of the dead man's waterhole and country, with its associated mythological significance, is carried out by the ceremonial leader of the deceased's clan and linguistic unit, as he beats his clapping sticks. The songs are sung in a characteristic wail by women, and among the conventional words they make informal comments about the dead person, or angrily make accusations about the blame for the death. The island of Bralgu is central to the dua moiety cycle, while Badu is the focus of the main jiridja moiety sequence.

The Nganug series is a subsidiary cycle of the dua moiety, one of a number, that speaks of the Paddle Maker for the dead man's spirit canoe. There is also a Macassan mast ceremony telling how the spirit of the dead person departs across the sea on its journey to the Islands of the Dead, just as the Macassans sailed away to their homeland. In a section of the Bralgu cycle of the dua moiety it tells how various animals move to and from the corpse to the Land of the Dead, in this case it was blowflies (C. Berndt: women's wailing; Yirrkalla).

Items such as clothing, spears and tobacco were placed in or around symbolic waterholes by close relatives during the big mortuary rituals. The rites and singing take place in the camp where the dead person died, and the camps where such relatives were living at the time of the death. Before and after the burial, or other disposal method, they speak to the spirit of the deceased. They only stop when the bones have been collected from the grave or platform, depending on which method of disposal was used. Accompanied by singing and dancing, the bones are cleaned and covered with red ochre and placed in a small bark coffin, or other container, that is painted with designs of totemic significance. The coffin is placed in the fork of a tree and are watched over by the keeper of the bones for about 2-3 months. After this period they are brought down to the edge of the camp and more ochre is applied. By this time a hollow log has been prepared and painted with designs associated with the deceased which is placed on a slant, held by a forked stick. Accompanied by singing, various people dance up with the bones, which are then broken up and placed in the log. The log is then stood upright where it remains until it rots. There are a number of variations on this theme. In one the skull and other bones may be taken to the waterhole of the deceased person, from where his spirit came. Alternatively, the specially painted skull may be carried around for a some time before being placed in a cave.

If the corpse had been buried a wuramu, or grave post, may have been placed over the grave. The wuramu may have been erected in the main camp if the corpse was exposed on a platform. It may be a stylised image of the dead person or possibly represent a spirit associated with his moiety home of the dead. The dead person's body is represented by the Morning Star pole, or the Macassan mast of the dua moiety, or some other similar construction, that are set up during the mortuary rituals, then left standing in the camp. 'we look at the post, and remember the departed spirit'.

The burial is followed by an inquest on Bathurst Island and Melville Island (Spencer, 1914: 229-39; Mountford, 1958: 60-118; Goodale, 1959: 5-13). The bugamani ceremonies began about 2 months after the burial (Hart & Pilling, 1960: 88-9). The ilania is the first of these, that involves jumping over a fire. Short songs that have been composed for the occasion are sung by the mourners (C. Berndt, 1950b). Men are given the task of making the burial poles who then attend to matters connected with the grave and the type of poles to be prepared. The return of the pole makers and their feeding, and a mock fight between the pole makers and the mourners (bugamani) was involved in the second ilania, as well as singing and dancing. In the bumadi married men and women beat their affilial relatives with boughs, and ritual fire-jumping also takes place. About a month before the bugamani, message sticks are sent to other camps informing them of the impending rituals. In the meantime other ilania are held. About 3 months after the burial the final bugamani is held that is in 5 parts over a couple of days (Mountford). The participants, wearing bugamani ornaments, are all paired. A basket dance is held with another fire-jumping rite. After this all rushed to the grave and flung themselves onto the covering, after which a series of songs and dances are held on the special dancing ground. The 2nd phase consists of more songs and dances. In the 3rd phase the pole makers are paid, goods being placed on the top of each pole. The poles are climbed by some men who sing about how wealthy and generous they are to pay the workers so much. The poles are erected at the grave in the 4th phase. The bushes are removed from the grave and the mourners throw themselves on it, wailing. The beards of the chief mourners are plucked and the painted decorations are washed from their bodies.

There is a very large amount of work involved in the rituals. An aim of the ceremonies is believed to be propitiation, and the assuagement of sorrow of those intimately concerned.

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: 30/09/2011
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