Australian Aborigines

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