Funeral traditions and ceremonies surrounding death are significant to Aboriginal peoples and take precedence over other activities. However, while most Aboriginal people may share beliefs about death, Aboriginal funeral traditions can vary widely between different communities.
What is an aboriginal funeral?
Aboriginal funerals are very important in their culture because they believe in the afterlife. After someone passes away, that person becomes a sacred object. Aboriginal funeral ceremonies help the spirit of the deceased journey back to their ancestral home. They’re also very careful not to disturb the spirit during the funeral process.
It’s important to note that it’s culturally inappropriate for a non-Aboriginal person to inform the next of kin of an Aboriginal person's passing and could cause significant distress for the deceased's family.
Aboriginal funeral traditions
Aboriginal funeral traditions can vary, but it’s common to come together as a community for the funeral and mourning period when someone passes away. Communities refer to this period as “sorry business” and will often shut down day to day tasks until it’s over.
During this time, it’s a common cultural practice for the whole community to get together and share their sorrow. The depth of kinship ties in Aboriginal culture means that everyone drops what they're doing to support the family as if it’s their own.
In the Northern Territory, there is a strong tradition not to speak the name or display images of the deceased. According to ancient law, saying the deceased’s name or looking at their photo could disturb their spirit, so they assign a substitute name and keep photos covered.
Aboriginal funeral service
Aboriginal funeral service rituals are quite different from those in other cultures or religions. First, the ritual begins with a smoking ceremony in the deceased’s home. The smoking ceremony aims to drive the deceased’s spirit away and toward the afterlife.
Next, they paint ochre where the deceased lived and put up a flag to mark that the deceased has died. Finally, there is a death ceremony where the body is left inside the deceased’s home while mourners celebrate by singing and dancing.
Traditionally, the body of the deceased will be dealt with in any one of several ways. In some places it will be buried accompanied by tools and personal items. In others it will be buried and the site covered with a small structure. And in other places the body will be wrapped in bark or placed on an elevated platform, before the remains are collected months later for burial.
Burial often takes place either near the place that the deceased was camping at the time of their passing or in a cemetery where descendants can return to for many years to come. These are known as Aboriginal burials and they are sacred in Indigenous culture.
Aboriginal funeral etiquette
For non-indigenous people attending an Aboriginal funeral, consider speaking to a friend or family member of the person who has died to confirm the dress code. However, like other types of funerals, dark, subdued clothing is a good option.
Be aware that as a non-Aboriginal person, you may not be allowed to observe or participate in certain ceremonies and rituals. For example, if there’s a traditional song or dance, it is appropriate to stay silent unless invited to join.
Aboriginal funeral traditions and ceremonies date back thousands of years. It’s considered a cultural obligation for Aboriginal people to follow their funeral traditions and guide the deceased back to where they belong. If you are in attendance at an Aboriginal funeral, it’s best to seek the guidance of a friend or loved one on the etiquette and traditions, as these can vary from one community to the next.
If you have specific wishes for your funeral, consider Willed’s prepaid funerals. You can plan and pay for your funeral in advance to save your family time, money and stress.