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Essay/Term paper: The death and dying beliefs of australian aborigines

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Religion

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The Death and Dying Beliefs of Australian Aborigines

Although the Aborigines are often classified as a primitive race whose
religion is based upon animism and totemism like the American Indians, the
Aboriginal funeral practices and beliefs about death have much in common with
other cultures. This paper will discuss the death and dying beliefs of the
Aborigines that share a common thread with many popular religions of today.
Aboriginal beliefs in death and dying are original in that they combine all
these beliefs in a different way. The purpose of looking at the commonalties is
to examine the shared foundations of all religions by investigating the aspect
of death and dying in a very localized and old set of beliefs.
As in many religions, Aborigines share a belief in a celestial Supreme
Being. During a novice's initiation, he learns the myth of Daramulun, which
means "Father," who is also called Biamban, or "Master." Long ago, Daramulun
dwelt on earth with his mother. The earth was barren and sterile. There were
no human beings, only animals. Daramulun created the ancestors of the tribes
and taught them how to live. He gave them the laws that are handed down from
father to son, founded the initiation ceremonies and made the bull-roarer, the
sound of which imitates his voice. It is Daramulun that gives the medicine men
their powers. When a man dies, it is Daramulun who cares for his spirit. This
belief was witnessed before the intervention of Christian missionaries. It is
also used only in the most secret initiations of which women know nothing and
are very central to the archaic and genuine religious and social traditions.
Therefore it is doubtful that this belief was due to missionary propaganda but
istruly a belief of the Aborigines (Eliade, 1973).
Another belief that is reminiscent of the Christian faith is that death
came into being only because the communications between heaven and earth had
been violently interrupted. When Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of
Eden, death came into existence. This belief of the origin of death is common
to many archaic religions where communication with heaven and its subsequent
interruption is related to the ancestor's loss of immortality or of his original
paradisal situation (Eliade, 1973).
The Australian ritual re-enactment of the "Creation" has a striking
parallel in post-Vedic India. The brahmanic sacrifice repeats what was done in
the beginning, at the moment of creation, and it is only because of the strict
uninterrupted performance of the sacrifice that the world continues and
periodically renews itself. It is only be identifying himself with the
sacrifice that man can conquer death. The ritual ensures the continuation of
cosmic life and at the same time introduces initiates to a sacred history that
ultimately will reveal the meaning of their lives (Charlesworth, 1984).
The Egyptian concept of the soul has many similarities to the totemic
cosmology of the Dreamtime. Unlike Christian philosophy, in which the soul is a
possession of the individual, the Egyptians conceived of the soul as an aspect
of a cosmological process. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Aborigines consider
the perceivable world an incarnation or projection of similar realities that
exist in a universal, spiritual sphere. For them, the human soul shares the
threefold nature of the soul of the creating spirits: a universal soul, a
natural soul of the species, and a unique individual soul. After death the soul
of each person merges first with the spirit species of nature's soul before
merging with its ancestral source in the Dreaming (Lawlor, 1991).
In the Aboriginal tradition, death, burial and afterlife are rich in
meaning and metaphysical interpretation. Aborigines use a wide variety of
burial practices, including all of those known to have been used in other parts
of the world, as well varieties not practiced anywhere else. Although these
rites vary, all Australian Aborigines share many fundamental ideas about death
and its relationship to life.
The most fundamental concept of death in the Aboriginal tradition is the
doctrine of three worlds, the unborn, the living, and the dying, and the Land of
the Dead. Therefore their concepts of death are their concepts of life. Each
individual passes through these domains only once. After death it is the
profound responsibility of the living to ensure that the spiritual component of
the dead person is separated from this world and can proceed to the next. The
Aborigines believe, as do Native Americans, that the notion of reincarnation
depends on two factors: (1) the obsession with the illusion of individuality
extends into the belief that the ego survives death and remains intact in the
afterlife; (2) such cultures have lost the knowledge of burial practices that
assist the spiritual energy of the deceased to separate from the earthly sphere,
and so the spiritual atmosphere is polluted with fragmented, disembodied,
energies of the dead. Fragments of spirit from the dead can interact with the
living, sometimes inhabiting, shadowing or controlling conscious behavior and
destiny. The Aborigines say that the atmosphere of the earth is now saturated
with dead spirits and that this pollution parallels the physical pollution of
the biosphere -- both of which contribute to the self-destructive course of
civilization (Lawlor, 1991).
The second universally held Aboriginal belief about death is that at the
moment of death, the spiritual component of the individual splits into three
distinct parts. This is similar to the Egyptian concept of the soul. Unlike
Christian philosophy, in which the soul is a possession of the individual, the
Egyptians conceived of the soul as an aspect of a cosmological process. Like
the ancient Egyptians, the Aborigines consider the perceivable world an
incarnation or projection of similar realities that exist in a universal,
spiritual sphere. For them, the human soul shares the threefold nature of the
soul of the creating spirits: a totemic soul, an ancestral soul and the ego soul.
The totemic soul is related to the sources of the life of the body: the earthly
location of the birth and the spirit of the animal and plant species to which
the person's bloodlines are connected and from which he or she has derived
nourishment throughout life. After death, the totemic soul essence, once
incorporated in the psychic and physical makeup of a person, is returned in
ceremonial ritual to the spirits of nature. Returning spiritual energy to the
animating forces of the totemic species reciprocates the debt to all those
living things that were sacrificed for the sake of humans. The second aspect of
an individual's spirit force that is released at death is called the ancestral
soul. This is the aspect of the deceased's soul that emanates from the
Ancestor's journeys to the constellations in a particular part of the sky. Each
region of the heavens has not only a pictorial constellation, usually an animal,
but also a particular pattern of invisible energy. These patterns are
symbolized in the geometric clan designs painted on the abdomen of the corpse
during burial rites. The same clan design was painted on the person at the time
of his or her first initiation. At the person's initiation and at the time of
death, the celebrants chant, "May from here your spirit reach to the stomach of
the sky." The third aspect is referred to by the Aborigines as the Trickster.
It is the spiritual source of the individualized ego and can be characterized as
the ego soul. It is the spirit force bound to locality and to the finite. At
the time of death, the Trickster is the most dangerous with which to deal. It
resents death, because this change removes contact from the material or local
world in which it functions. It may become stuck in this world after the other
aspects of the soul have departed. The ego soul works throughout its life to
plant the possibilities of an earthly immortality. The totem soul, ego soul,
and ancestral soul correspond to the cosmic trinity of the unborn, the living
and the dying, and the Land of the Dead, as well was to the earthly order of
species, place and clan (Lawlor, 1991).
In many aspects of Aboriginal life, the concentration is on the
interaction between the visible and the invisible, the external world and the
Dreamtime reality. The Aboriginal view of death is not any different. The
Aborigines consider dying to be a constant complementary process to life, both
in a biological sense and in the sense of death throughout initiation.
Following physical death, the most significant stage of the dying process
begins: the spirit dies away from the earthly atmosphere in a process that can
take months, even years (Lawlor, 1991). In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the
spirit takes only twelve hours to leave the corpse, but there is also the delay
in the spirit leaving the body after death (Parry, 1995).
After an Aborigine dies, the news is quickly communicated to all clan
groups, no matter how distant, in which kin members are living. The messengers
approach distant groups and display the collection of clan totemic designs with
which the deceased was affiliated. The displays alert people in the camp of
their kin relationship and their responsibilities to the dead person. The
messengers may also sing songs that hint at the person's identity, but they
never reveal the name (Lawlor, 1991).
In some tribes, certain mourners must not speak for some time, and in
all, the name of the dead may not be mentioned for months or even years. The
taboo against pronouncing the name of the dead is strictly observed because it
is believed that the vibratory pattern of the person's name can act as a hook or
anchor to which the spiritual energy of the deceased can attach itself and
thereby remain on earth (Lawlor, 1991). In addition, any persons or objects
bearing the same name must no longer be referred to by that name (Elkin, 1964).
In traditional cultures, name avoidance may prevent provocation of the spirit.
Whereas in today's societies, avoidance of a name may avoidance of pain due to
loss (DeSpelder, 1996). Widowed Aboriginal women also maintain vows of silence,
even after remarriage, to publicly express sorrow. Many of these women will
communicate to one another in sign language. In Indian yoga, vows of silence
are believed to instigate rapid inner changes. This aspect of silence would
benefit Aboriginal women, who must completely restructure their lives when they
move from one marriage to another (Lawlor, 1991). In many other cultures, women
have distinct restrictions placed on them after a death. An Islamic widow must
wait four months and ten days before remarrying (Parry, 1995).
Some generalizations found throughout the Aboriginal tribes are that the
actions of those associated with a dying or dead person are regulated by certain
forms of social organization, or in particular, the kinship system, generation
or age-levels, moiety and cult group. When a person is dying, people watch
nearby or at a distance, according to relationship rules; they wail or chant,
gash and draw blood from themselves, and maybe throw themselves on the sick
person. After death, all of this emotion is usually intensified and often a
state of frenzy is reached (Elkin, 1964). Sorrow and grief are highly
dramatized in Aboriginal society. Much like Muslim women who are infamous for
their dramatic wailings as a release of grief, both men and women wail and
lament long after the death of a relative. The tearful demonstrations continue
until "they become empty of grief." Grieving is sometimes accompanied by ritual
wounding. Bloodletting, like emotion, is an outpouring of spirit into a larger
reality. In the dramatization of sorrow, both spirit and blood escape the body
in an acknowledgment of the suffering and death that universally befell
humankind (Lawlor, 1991). This is not only a sign of real or standardized grief
but also of the disturbance of the general sense of well-being. It is also a
reaction to the magical death-dealing forces that are ever about and had just
been put into effective operation (Elkin, 1964).
The feeling of sorrow expands from the individual and society to include
a relationship to the land. When someone dies, the places of conception, birth,
initiation, marriage, and death of the person receive as much respect and
attention as the deceased relative. In this way, grieving moves beyond the
individual's death and becomes more a catalyst for remembering places and events
and myths associated with those places. The rule in Aboriginal society is to
avoid, for a long time, the place where a kin has died, until the memory has
faded in intensity. Approaching the death site of a recently deceased relative
would imply disrespect. During their absence from these sites, the Aborigines
dramatically express nostalgia for the features of that countryside. Often the
demonstrations of grief need not be spontaneous or authentic, yet they express a
continuing relationship that the living have to the dead. The emotion of grief
must be fully released, since any sorrow withheld in the psyche would form alink
to which the deceased spirit might cling (Lawlor, 1991). Gradually the
heightened emotions and rage die down and come under control as they become
centered in traditional manner. After this initial display of grief, the body
is attended to and is usually shifted at once to the place of burial or
preparation for the burial (Elkin, 1964).
There is a standardized process of grief followed by the Aborigines.
The self-inflicted pain and loud lamentings are not a measure of the grief
actually felt. To a certain extent, the excessive display is due to tribal
custom and as such has a very strong hold upon the imagination of a people whose
every action is bound and limited by custom. There is also the fear that unless
a sufficient amount of grief is displayed, he will be harmed by the offended
spirit of the dead person (Spencer, 1968).
All religions have some sort of purification rituals. The Jews have
many laws detailing ritual cleanliness and in the Hindu caste system those who
touch the dead are the lowest caste (Parry, 1995). For the Aborigines,
everything that was associated with the dead person is destroyed, avoided or
purified. The campsite where the person died is deserted by the group, and the
exact place of death is examined by the tribal elders and then marked completely
deserted for years (Lawlor, 1991). Though he will no longer need his body as a
means of action, it is weighted down, tied up, or the legs are broken so that he
will not be able to wander. A zigzag path is followed to and from the grave
site at the time of burial, or a smoke screen is passed through so that the
spirit of the dead will not be able to follow the mourners (Elkin, 1964). Even
in the Roman Empire, the burial customs reflected the belief that the dead might
come back and haunt the living (DeSpelder, 1996). Those who take part in the
burial are brushed with smoking twigs, and the wives who were closely associated
with the diseased during his lifetime, are usually separated from the general
camp for a prescribed period of time.. Food taboos are observed and there are
special ones adopted because the food was the deceased's totem or was one of
which he was fond. In all these ways, the deceased, the thought of death and
the gap caused by it are banished from consciousness. When the various taboos
have been lifted, the widow is remarried or the widower resumes his habitual
ways of living and society regains its equilibrium. The society "bequeaths to
the past the associations of death, and faces the future with renewed hope and
courage." (Elkin, 1964)
Burial practices of the Aborigines are meant to prepare the spirit of the
dead person for its new life as well as a mark of respect. Within the Arunta
tribe, the body is buried in a relatively short period of time. It is placed in
a sitting position with the knees doubled up against the chin and is interred in
a round hole in the ground. The earth is pile directly onto the body so as to
make a low mound with a depression on one side (van Beek, 1975). There are many
forms of burial used by the Aborigines. These forms include interment,
mummification, cremation, platform-exposure and delayed burial, and burial in
hollow trees. There is a wide spread distribution of a two-fold burial
procedure, with the consequent lengthening of the time of the mourning ritual.
So persistent is the idea that it is seen in many forms. The different
combinations include platform exposure and delayed burial, mummification and
final disposal, interment and disinterment for later mourning over bones, and in
the removal of bones from one grave to another. Such procedures emphasize the
significance of death and the length of time the society requires to adjust
itself to the death (Elkin, 1964).
Although Aboriginal burial are usually long and elaborate and the
disposal of the corpse can be complex, the ritual focuses on the spiritual
ramifications of death, not physical disposal or preservation. The primary goal
of Aboriginal funeral rites is to safeguard the well-being of the living. The
correct funeral procedures and rituals are valued for their benefit to the
living (Lawlor, 1991).
As in ancient Egyptian and other traditions, the Aboriginal journey to
the other world is imagined in a sacred bark or spirit canoe with a mythic
ferryman at its helm. Water itself is often used symbolically and associated
with death, especially in African culture (Parry, 1995). The ancient Greeks
also had such a belief with the skeletal ferryman, Charon, who travels the River
Styx to the Underworld. The spirit canoe sets out across the sea to the island
of the dead. In many world myths the helmsman is an important figure at the
beginning of the journey toward death. In the Aboriginal belief, he is always
abusive. He beats the men and rapes or demands sex with women. The beating or
rape by the helmsman symbolizes the severe assault and trauma the consciousness
undergoes in its initial separation from the body (Lawlor, 1991).
Most of the initiation rituals in Aboriginal society follow a pattern of
death and rebirth. For example, a novice dies to the profane world of childhood
and irresponsible innocence, the world of ignorance, and prepares himself for
rebirth as a spiritual being, much as Christians receive a new soul at First
Holy Communion. The tribe understands this death literally and mourns over the
novices as the dead are mourned (Eliade, 1973). The Aborigine sees life in
death and is exposed to it throughout his lifetime in the initiation processes
that allow an internal experience of the journey from life to the realm of the
dead. The African-American approach to death is also as a rite of passage where
the soul passes into another phase (Parry, 1995). The American society denies
death and views it as a threat to life. The Aborigine, on the other hand,
understands the spiritual reality of death and its necessity. To the Aborigine,
it is impossible to understand how to exist in this life without knowing howto
exist in death and therefore it is once again apparent that the society's views
on death are reflected by their views of life. The world only has meaning to
the degree that Death and the Unborn have meaning. To deny or distort the
purpose and meaning of one is to deny the same for all (van Beek, 1975).
The Aborigines have very defined rituals and expectations dealing with
the death of a person. They also have highly evolved meanings to accompany
their rituals. Although this paper has shown many similarities between other
religions and that of the Aborigines, they have their own distinct compilations
of these beliefs and practices. Their standardized grief process, concepts of
an afterlife and burial practices are not foreign to today's American society
when looking at the meaning and purpose behind their death and dying practices.
Certain human emotions manifest themselves across many cultures in their death
practices and in the end differences are often in the technicalities when the
significance stays the same. However this is not always apparent to people from
different religions and can cause certain religions to be labeled primitive and
the people to be called savages.


Charlesworth, M., H. Morphy, D. Bell, and K. Maddock. Religion in Aboriginal
Australia. Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1984.

DeSpleder, L. A., A. L. Strickland. The Last Dance; Encountering Death and
Dying. London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1996.

Eliade, M. Australian Religions: An Introduction. Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1973.

Elkin, A. P. The Australian Aborigines. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and
Company, Inc., 1964.

Lawlor, R. Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime.
Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1991.

Parry, J. K., A. S. Ryan. A Cross-Cultural Look at Death, Dying, and Religion.
Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1995.

Spencer, B., and F. J. Gillen. The Native Tribes of Central Australia. New
York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1968.

van Beek, W. E. A., J. H. Scherer. Explorations in the Anthropology of Religion.
Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975.


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