Essay, Research Paper
The Death and Dying Beliefs of Australian Aborigines Although the Aborigines are often classified as a primitive race whosereligion is based upon animism and totemism like the American Indians, theAboriginal funeral practices and beliefs about death have much in common withother cultures. This paper will discuss the death and dying beliefs of theAborigines that share a common thread with many popular religions of today.Aboriginal beliefs in death and dying are original in that they combine allthese beliefs in a different way. The purpose of looking at the commonalties isto examine the shared foundations of all religions by investigating the aspectof 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, Daramulundwelt on earth with his mother. The earth was barren and sterile. There wereno human beings, only animals. Daramulun created the ancestors of the tribesand taught them how to live. He gave them the laws that are handed down fromfather to son, founded the initiation ceremonies and made the bull-roarer, thesound of which imitates his voice. It is Daramulun that gives the medicine mentheir powers. When a man dies, it is Daramulun who cares for his spirit. Thisbelief was witnessed before the intervention of Christian missionaries. It isalso 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 deathcame into being only because the communications between heaven and earth hadbeen violently interrupted. When Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden ofEden, death came into existence. This belief of the origin of death is commonto many archaic religions where communication with heaven and its subsequentinterruption is related to the ancestor’s loss of immortality or of his originalparadisal 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 thesacrifice that man can conquer death. The ritual ensures the continuation ofcosmic life and at the same time introduces initiates to a sacred history thatultimately will reveal the meaning of their lives (Charlesworth, 1984). The Egyptian concept of the soul has many similarities to the totemiccosmology of the Dreamtime. Unlike Christian philosophy, in which the soul is apossession of the individual, the Egyptians conceived of the soul as an aspectof a cosmological process. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Aborigines considerthe perceivable world an incarnation or projection of similar realities thatexist in a universal, spiritual sphere. For them, the human soul shares thethreefold nature of the soul of the creating spirits: a universal soul, anatural soul of the species, and a unique individual soul. After death the soulof each person merges first with the spirit species of nature’s soul beforemerging with its ancestral source in the Dreaming (Lawlor, 1991). In the Aboriginal tradition, death, burial and afterlife are rich inmeaning and metaphysical interpretation. Aborigines use a wide variety ofburial practices, including all of those known to have been used in other partsof the world, as well varieties not practiced anywhere else. Although theserites vary, all Australian Aborigines share many fundamental ideas about deathand its relationship to life. The most fundamental concept of death in the Aboriginal tradition is thedoctrine of three worlds, the unborn, the living, and the dying, and the Land ofthe Dead. Therefore their concepts of death are their concepts of life. Eachindividual passes through these domains only once. After death it is theprofound responsibility of the living to ensure that the spiritual component ofthe dead person is separated from this world and can proceed to the next. TheAborigines believe, as do Native Americans, that the notion of reincarnationdepends on two factors: (1) the obsession with the illusion of individualityextends into the belief that the ego survives death and remains intact in theafterlife; (2) such cultures have lost the knowledge of burial practices thatassist the spiritual energy of the deceased to separate from the earthly sphere,and so the spiritual atmosphere is polluted with fragmented, disembodied,energies of the dead. Fragments of spirit from the dead can interact with theliving, sometimes inhabiting, shadowing or controlling conscious behavior anddestiny. The Aborigines say that the atmosphere of the earth is now saturatedwith dead spirits and that this pollution parallels the physical pollution ofthe biosphere — both of which contribute to the self-destructive course ofcivilization (Lawlor, 1991). The second universally held Aboriginal belief about death is that at themoment of death, the spiritual component of the individual splits into threedistinct parts. This is similar to the Egyptian concept of the soul. UnlikeChristian philosophy, in which the soul is a possession of the individual, theEgyptians conceived of the soul as an aspect of a cosmological process. Likethe ancient Egyptians, the Aborigines consider the perceivable world anincarnation or projection of similar realities that exist in a universal,spiritual sphere. For them, the human soul shares the threefold nature of thesoul of the creating spirits: a totemic soul, an ancestral soul and the ego soul.The totemic soul is related to the sources of the life of the body: the earthlylocation of the birth and the spirit of the animal and plant species to whichthe person’s bloodlines are connected and from which he or she has derivednourishment throughout life. After death, the totemic soul essence, onceincorporated in the psychic and physical makeup of a person, is returned inceremonial ritual to the spirits of nature. Returning spiritual energy to theanimating forces of the totemic species reciprocates the debt to all thoseliving things that were sacrificed for the sake of humans. The second aspect ofan individual’s spirit force that is released at death is called the ancestralsoul. This is the aspect of the deceased’s soul that emanates from theAncestor’s journeys to the constellations in a particular part of the sky. Eachregion of the heavens has not only a pictorial constellation, usually an animal,but also a particular pattern of invisible energy. These patterns aresymbolized in the geometric clan designs painted on the abdomen of the corpseduring burial rites. The same clan design was painted on the person at the timeof his or her first initiation. At the person’s initiation and at the time ofdeath, the celebrants chant, ?May from here your spirit reach to the stomach ofthe sky.? The third aspect is referred to by the Aborigines as the Trickster.It is the spiritual source of the individualized ego and can be characterized asthe ego soul. It is the spirit force bound to locality and to the finite. Atthe time of death, the Trickster is the most dangerous with which to deal. Itresents death, because this change removes contact from the material or localworld in which it functions. It may become stuck in this world after the otheraspects of the soul have departed. The ego soul works throughout its life toplant the possibilities of an earthly immortality. The totem soul, ego soul,and ancestral soul correspond to the cosmic trinity of the unborn, the livingand the dying, and the Land of the Dead, as well was to the earthly order ofspecies, place and clan (Lawlor, 1991). In many aspects of Aboriginal life, the concentration is on theinteraction between the visible and the invisible, the external world and theDreamtime reality. The Aboriginal view of death is not any different. TheAborigines consider dying to be a constant complementary process to life, bothin a biological sense and in the sense of death throughout initiation.Following physical death, the most significant stage of the dying processbegins: the spirit dies away from the earthly atmosphere in a process that cantake months, even years (Lawlor, 1991). In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, thespirit takes only twelve hours to leave the corpse, but there is also the delayin the spirit leaving the body after death (Parry, 1995). After an Aborigine dies, the news is quickly communicated to all clangroups, no matter how distant, in which kin members are living. The messengersapproach distant groups and display the collection of clan totemic designs withwhich the deceased was affiliated. The displays alert people in the camp oftheir kin relationship and their responsibilities to the dead person. Themessengers may also sing songs that hint at the person’s identity, but they never reveal the name (Lawlor, 1991). In some tribes, certain mourners must not speak for some time, and inall, the name of the dead may not be mentioned for months or even years. Thetaboo against pronouncing the name of the dead is strictly observed because itis believed that the vibratory pattern of the person’s name can act as a hook oranchor to which the spiritual energy of the deceased can attach itself andthereby remain on earth (Lawlor, 1991). In addition, any persons or objectsbearing the same name must no longer be referred to by that name (Elkin, 1964).In traditional cultures, name avoidance may prevent provocation of the spirit.Whereas in today’s societies, avoidance of a name may avoidance of pain due toloss (DeSpelder, 1996). Widowed Aboriginal women also maintain vows of silence,even after remarriage, to publicly express sorrow. Many of these women willcommunicate to one another in sign language. In Indian yoga, vows of silenceare believed to instigate rapid inner changes. This aspect of silence wouldbenefit Aboriginal women, who must completely restructure their lives when theymove from one marriage to another (Lawlor, 1991). In many other cultures, womenhave distinct restrictions placed on them after a death. An Islamic widow mustwait four months and ten days before remarrying (Parry, 1995). Some generalizations found throughout the Aboriginal tribes are that theactions of those associated with a dying or dead person are regulated by certainforms of social organization, or in particular, the kinship system, generationor age-levels, moiety and cult group. When a person is dying, people watchnearby or at a distance, according to relationship rules; they wail or chant,gash and draw blood from themselves, and maybe throw themselves on the sickperson. After death, all of this emotion is usually intensified and often a state of frenzy is reached (Elkin, 1964). Sorrow and grief are highlydramatized in Aboriginal society. Much like Muslim women who are infamous fortheir dramatic wailings as a release of grief, both men and women wail andlament long after the death of a relative. The tearful demonstrations continueuntil ?they become empty of grief.? Grieving is sometimes accompanied by ritualwounding. Bloodletting, like emotion, is an outpouring of spirit into a largerreality. In the dramatization of sorrow, both spirit and blood escape the bodyin an acknowledgment of the suffering and death that universally befellhumankind (Lawlor, 1991). This is not only a sign of real or standardized griefbut also of the disturbance of the general sense of well-being. It is also areaction to the magical death-dealing forces that are ever about and had justbeen put into effective operation (Elkin, 1964). The feeling of sorrow expands from the individual and society to includea relationship to the land. When someone dies, the places of conception, birth,initiation, marriage, and death of the person receive as much respect andattention as the deceased relative. In this way, grieving moves beyond theindividual’s death and becomes more a catalyst for remembering places and eventsand myths associated with those places. The rule in Aboriginal society is toavoid, for a long time, the place where a kin has died, until the memory hasfaded in intensity. Approaching the death site of a recently deceased relativewould imply disrespect. During their absence from these sites, the Aboriginesdramatically express nostalgia for the features of that countryside. Often thedemonstrations of grief need not be spontaneous or authentic, yet they express acontinuing relationship that the living have to the dead. The emotion of griefmust be fully released, since any sorrow withheld in the psyche would form alinkto which the deceased spirit might cling (Lawlor, 1991). Gradually theheightened emotions and rage die down and come under control as they becomecentered in traditional manner. After this initial display of grief, the bodyis attended to and is usually shifted at once to the place of burial orpreparation for the burial (Elkin, 1964). There is a standardized process of grief followed by the Aborigines.The self-inflicted pain and loud lamentings are not a measure of the griefactually felt. To a certain extent, the excessive display is due to tribalcustom and as such has a very strong hold upon the imagination of a people whoseevery action is bound and limited by custom. There is also the fear that unlessa sufficient amount of grief is displayed, he will be harmed by the offendedspirit of the dead person (Spencer, 1968). All religions have some sort of purification rituals. The Jews havemany laws detailing ritual cleanliness and in the Hindu caste system those whotouch the dead are the lowest caste (Parry, 1995). For the Aborigines, everything that was associated with the dead person is destroyed, avoided or purified. The campsite where the person died is deserted by the group, and the exact place of death is examined by the tribal elders and then marked completely deserted for years (Lawlor, 1991). Though he will no longer need his body as a means of action, it is weighted down, tied up, or the legs are broken so that he will not be able to wander. A zigzag path is followed to and from the gravesite at the time of burial, or a smoke screen is passed through so that thespirit of the dead will not be able to follow the mourners (Elkin, 1964). Evenin the Roman Empire, the burial customs reflected the belief that the dead mightcome back and haunt the living (DeSpelder, 1996). Those who take part in theburial are brushed with smoking twigs, and the wives who were closely associatedwith the diseased during his lifetime, are usually separated from the generalcamp for a prescribed period of time.. Food taboos are observed and there arespecial ones adopted because the food was the deceased’s totem or was one ofwhich he was fond. In all these ways, the deceased, the thought of death andthe gap caused by it are banished from consciousness. When the various tabooshave been lifted, the widow is remarried or the widower resumes his habitualways of living and society regains its equilibrium. The society ?bequeaths tothe past the associations of death, and faces the future with renewed hope andcourage.? (Elkin, 1964) Burial practices of the Aborigines are meant to prepare the spirit of thedead person for its new life as well as a mark of respect. Within the Aruntatribe, the body is buried in a relatively short period of time. It is placed ina sitting position with the knees doubled up against the chin and is interred ina round hole in the ground. The earth is pile directly onto the body so as tomake a low mound with a depression on one side (van Beek, 1975). There are manyforms of burial used by the Aborigines. These forms include interment, mummification, cremation, platform-exposure and delayed burial, and burial in hollow trees. There is a wide spread distribution of a two-fold burial procedure, with the consequent lengthening of the time of the mourning ritual.So persistent is the idea that it is seen in many forms. The differentcombinations include platform exposure and delayed burial, mummification andfinal disposal, interment and disinterment for later mourning over bones, and inthe removal of bones from one grave to another. Such procedures emphasize thesignificance of death and the length of time the society requires to adjustitself to the death (Elkin, 1964). Although Aboriginal burial are usually long and elaborate and the disposal of the corpse can be complex, the ritual focuses on the spiritual ramifications of death, not physical disposal or preservation. The primary goal of Aboriginal funeral rites is to safeguard the well-being of the living. The correct funeral procedures and rituals are valued for their benefit to theliving (Lawlor, 1991). As in ancient Egyptian and other traditions, the Aboriginal journey tothe other world is imagined in a sacred bark or spirit canoe with a mythicferryman at its helm. Water itself is often used symbolically and associatedwith death, especially in African culture (Parry, 1995). The ancient Greeksalso had such a belief with the skeletal ferryman, Charon, who travels the RiverStyx to the Underworld. The spirit canoe sets out across the sea to the islandof the dead. In many world myths the helmsman is an important figure at thebeginning of the journey toward death. In the Aboriginal belief, he is alwaysabusive. He beats the men and rapes or demands sex with women. The beating orrape by the helmsman symbolizes the severe assault and trauma the consciousnessundergoes in its initial separation from the body (Lawlor, 1991). Most of the initiation rituals in Aboriginal society follow a pattern ofdeath and rebirth. For example, a novice dies to the profane world of childhoodand irresponsible innocence, the world of ignorance, and prepares himself forrebirth as a spiritual being, much as Christians receive a new soul at FirstHoly Communion. The tribe understands this death literally and mourns over the novices as the dead are mourned (Eliade, 1973). The Aborigine sees life indeath and is exposed to it throughout his lifetime in the initiation processesthat allow an internal experience of the journey from life to the realm of thedead. The African-American approach to death is also as a rite of passage wherethe soul passes into another phase (Parry, 1995). The American society deniesdeath and views it as a threat to life. The Aborigine, on the other hand,understands the spiritual reality of death and its necessity. To the Aborigine,it is impossible to understand how to exist in this life without knowing howtoexist in death and therefore it is once again apparent that the society’s viewson death are reflected by their views of life. The world only has meaning tothe degree that Death and the Unborn have meaning. To deny or distort thepurpose and meaning of one is to deny the same for all (van Beek, 1975). The Aborigines have very defined rituals and expectations dealing withthe death of a person. They also have highly evolved meanings to accompanytheir rituals. Although this paper has shown many similarities between otherreligions and that of the Aborigines, they have their own distinct compilationsof these beliefs and practices. Their standardized grief process, concepts ofan afterlife and burial practices are not foreign to today’s American societywhen looking at the meaning and purpose behind their death and dying practices.Certain human emotions manifest themselves across many cultures in their deathpractices and in the end differences are often in the technicalities when thesignificance stays the same. However this is not always apparent to people fromdifferent religions and can cause certain religions to be labeled primitive andthe people to be called savages.
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