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Death among the Aboriginal People of Australia

Death among the Aboriginal People of Australia


            The Aboriginals are known to be the original inhabitants of Australia. They have well laid out structures that ensure inheritance and retention of the community’s customs, beliefs, and language. According to Gray, and Tesfaghiorghis, (2018), the Aboriginals constitute about 3.1 % of Australia’s population as of 2016. Before colonization by Britain, close to 250 different Aboriginal dialects were spoken in Australia. A larger percentage of the Aboriginal people are found in the northern territory of Australia, Tasmania, Queensland, and Western Australia. The Aboriginal people communicate in English mixed with Aboriginal words which gives rise to Australian Aboriginal English. Unlike the other inhabitants of Australia, the Aboriginals have been deprived in terms of economic empowerment and health care. Death among the Aboriginals is dealt with uniquely.


            Among the Aboriginals, it is a cultural requirement that when a patient is about to die, the family members are supposed to be present to offer comfort and cultural support to the ailing patient. Upon learning that an Aboriginal person is about to die, the family members plus other members of the community gather at the health facility as a sign of respect for the family member who is about to die. The rationale behind these gatherings is that the Aboriginals believe that it aids the person to prepare for the coming phase of life (Carlson, and Frazer, 2015). Besides, it is believed that through these gatherings the family members of the person who is about to die are prepared to deal with the loss and mourning when the patient eventually dies. Many members of the community gather when a member of the community who an elder has died or they are very sick. This is done to accord the elder the respect the community holds for that particular elder.

            Carlson, and Frazer (2015) alluded to the fact that among the Aboriginals, upon the death of one of their members, the community is culturally expected to perform certain roles show honor, respect, and love for the member who has passed on. The roles include providing material aid to the bereaved family, ferrying of the dead person, and offering foodstuffs. The Aboriginals hold the view that upon the death of a member of the community, the soul leaves the body and moves to the next phase afterlife on earth. According to the Aborigines, if the soul does not have the opportunity to leave the body, then there is likelihood that the soul will hang around and haunt the deceased’s, family members.

            Hafner (2016) argues that the culture among the Aboriginals of Australia forbids taking photographs of the dead, and mentioning or even writing down the name of the dead person. They believe that taking photographs, mentioning or even writing down the name of the dead person is tantamount to calling back the soul of the dead person to the world hence interfering with their transition to the next phase of life. Upon the death of an Aboriginal, consultations are made among the family members to find out if certain rites need to be performed. The Aboriginals also perform a “smoking” ceremony that is aimed at assisting the soul to leave the body of the dead person. This ceremony involves smoking of the deceased persons homestead and all the property that the person owned. Before the performance of this ritual, immediate family members and friends are on some occasions moved away from the house or homestead of the deceased.

            To establish what might have caused the death, an Aboriginal elder performs a practice similar to an autopsy and avails the results that are spiritually interpreted. In some cultures, among the Aboriginals, the autopsy may include taking samples from the deceased person’s body such as the hair (Hafner, 2016). Other cultures may involve looking for foreign objects from the body. The objects are usually used to determine what caused the death. The Aboriginals quickly accept death resulting from poor health over a long period as they consider expected death. However, the death that occurs suddenly is usually associated with witchcraft hence there is always someone to be blamed for having caused the death.

            According to Hafner (2016), mourning among the Aboriginals is usually loud especially where the death occurred to the person while far away from the community.  On the day before the burial, the family members go the mortuary to ‘dress’ the dead with shoes, a tie, and even perfume. If the deceased was a female, the dressing is done by the females and vice versa. The Aboriginals regard cultural practices that relate to death very highly. Aboriginal culture does not allow people who are not Aboriginals to let the immediate members of the family about the death of an Aboriginal.

            In the olden days, certain Aboriginal societies buried their dead person in two phases. The first phase involved leaving the dead person on a raised ground outside for some period often running into months. Once the body has decomposed remaining skeleton would be taken and painted with red ochre. The painted skeleton would be later buried in a vital place in the homestead or would be kept by the members of the family as a way of remembering the deceased. Burial ceremonies among the Aboriginals can go on for many days sometimes run into weeks and they involve singing and dancing (Hafner, 2016).

            The Aboriginals believe that when someone dies, the person’s soul goes back to them what they call ‘Dreaming Ancestors‘ if burial rites are conducted correctly (Carlson, and Frazer 2015). The Aboriginals believe that there are two souls in one person where one soul cannot cause harm and the other exists separately but can be harmful to the first one. Different rituals are conducted to make sure that the soul of the dead person does not come back and haunt the family members. To achieve this, Aborigines use tree barks, trees and mounds of soil to separate the grave from the homestead (Carlson, and Frazer, 2015). The deceased person’s belongings including weapons are sometimes buried with the body or disposed of during the burial. When performing burial ceremonies which can last for months, immediate members of the family are allowed to talk during mourning time. Once an Aboriginal has died, that person’s name is not allowed to be used in that community and sometimes where there is a living person with a similar name, the name is usually altered.

            Another ritual performed by the Aboriginals is the carrying of bones by the close family members of the deceased person. Using a piece of grass, they hand the bones around the neck or even carry around some ash from the site of cremation. Hafner (2016) holds the view that the Aboriginals believe that these bones are medicinal and therefore can be used to treat diseases. This ritual is in line with the Aborigines’ school of that thought that the souls of dead people are very close to the ability of their bones to heal. The Aboriginals treat death as a movement into another form of life which is similar to the way they lived before death.

            In Australia today, Aboriginal funerals are conducted by one person who understands the community’s culture, customs, and traditions that are carried out during funerals (Hafner, 2016). In Aboriginal society, funerals and bereavement belong to the entire community. Aboriginals also perform a ritual called the death ceremony where the corpse is kept in the home of the dead person as mourners sing and dance in celebration. The body is then taken to a raised ground where it is left to rot instead of being put in a casket or grave. Mourning of the deceased among the Aboriginals usually involves feasting accompanied by song and dance instead of sadness. The Aboriginals forbid the mentioning the dead person’s name or even writing it down or having photographs of the dead person. They believe that doing this would cause disturbance to the dead person’s soul which would, in turn, come back to haunt the members of the family who are still alive (Hafner, 2016).       


            The Aboriginals believe that a dead person’s spirit is supposed to be driven to the next phase of life and death is just simply a transition from one phase of life to the other. From sickness to death and the ceremonies that come with form a critical part of the culture of the Aboriginal people of Australia. Ceremonies such as painting all the places where the dead person interacted with using ochre, raising flags, performing the smoking ceremony, retaining the corpse at home and having all the mourners painted are conducted with aim of driving the soul of the dead person to the next phase of life. Aboriginals have managed to stick to these cultural practices for centuries. Mourning and funerals being a communal affair have enabled the Aboriginals to stick together as a community and pass down the practices to other generations.


Carlson, B., & Frazer, R. (2015). “It’s like Going to a Cemetery and Lighting a Candle”: Aboriginal Australians, Sorry Business and social media. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples11(3), 211-224.

Gray, A., & Tesfaghiorghis, H. (2018). Social indicators of the Aboriginal population of Australia.

Hafner, D. (2016). Death, funerals, and emotion in an Australian Aboriginal community. Ethnos81(5), 913-932.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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