The Death and Dying Beliefs of Australian Aborigines

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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...
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