The beliefs and rituals of the Australian Aboriginal peoples vary from tribe to tribe, region to region, all loosely pertaining to their concept of the cosmos and afterlife, known as “The Dreaming.” Oftentimes, any number of methods may be used to dispose of the body and free the soul, including cremation, decay by exposure, and mummification. There are different but distinct stages to these rituals, marking the separation of spirit from body.
One interesting ritual involves laying out the deceased on a platform, with the body covered in branches and leaves, and the corpse is left to decay naturally. The funeral rites can last for months, and often involve ceremonies with singing and dancing, and relatives speak with the spirit of the deceased. After decay of the body, the bones are collected, cleaned, and painted with red ochre. With the accompaniment of dancing and singing, the bones are placed in a small wooden coffin, marked with totemic symbols, and then placed in the fork of a tree, where for the next two to three months it will be watched over by the keeper of the bones.
After this part of the ritual ends, the bones are then covered with more red ochre and, in some tribes, danced with or carried around by the loved ones of the deceased. Finally the bones are broken up and placed in a hollowed-out log, which will be placed upright and allowed to rot. It’s important to note that there are many variations on the Aboriginal funeral ritual, influenced by regional heritage.
Collectively, this elaborate process is known in the English translation as “sorry business,” which not only includes the burial rituals, but also a number of other social customs for dealing with the pain and anger of death, such as self-flagellation and distinctive wailing. Destruction of the deceased’s property is also another custom, one based on the Aboriginal belief that there are two types of, or sides to, the soul. One is the ancestral soul, which is pure and eternal, goes to live on, either in the heavens with God or to inhabit totemic items of worship. The other, however, is the egoistic soul, which can continue to remain on the mortal plane and cause trouble for living relatives. In order to send the egoistic soul away, it is often custom to dispose of the deceased’s earthly possessions by either destroying or burying them, and banning the use of the deceased’s name.