A couple of months ago I journeyed through the realms of childhood with Ute Eickelkamp’s delightful Growing Up in Central Australia (Berhahn Books, 2011). Shortly afterwards, browsing nearby library stacks, I came across a book that took me to the opposite end of life’s spectrum: Mortality, Mourning and Mortuary Practices in Indigenous Australia, edited by Katie Glaskin, Myrna Tonkinson, Yasmine Musharbash and Victoria Burbank (Ashgate Publishing, 2008). The eleven essays, along with a substantial introduction by the editors and an eloquent afterword by Frances and Howard Morphy, span the continent from the Torres Strait and Cape York to the Kimberley and from the central deserts to the outback of New South Wales.
Compelling despite the grim subject matter, the book documents and reflects on the place of funeral practices in contemporary Indigenous society, what they mean today, and how they are being affected by the plague of early deaths that has beset these societies in recent years. It also documents the paradoxes inherent in contemporary practice, proof of the process of adjustment to the effects of colonization and the disruption of traditional practices that has followed in its wake.
Too many funerals is a theme that runs through many, if not all, of these essays. Too much death, and too much dying in ways that are becoming increasingly heart-rending. And yet, in an odd way, the process of burying the dead has become a means of breathing life back into the society, or affirming values and connections. That may be small solace in the end, but it offers a bare hope at the bottom of this Pandora’s box of ills.
Ritual almost always provides this sort of social glue, and certainly ritual is central to many aspects of traditional Indigenous culture. It not only attends major life passages like birth and death, but it marks stages in the growth of individuals between these poles, especially in the form of initiation ceremonies that demarcate youth from maturity. But the rituals of birth are gender-segregated. The prevalence of initiation ceremonies, though they have a place for both sexes, is decreasing as traditional patterns of settlement and migration change, as early death robs the society of senior individuals with the capacity and knowledge to conduct the rituals, and as young people are distracted and distanced from the old ways by the lures of technology and alcohol alike.
In this changing landscape, the gathering of extended kin for funeral ceremonies has in many cases become the chief opportunity for some kind of ritual performance. These ceremonies, however they are constructed in modern times, allow for the assertion of an Aboriginal identity and for the renewal of social ties among the affected individuals. They allow for the creation of a sense of continuity within the community and with the past in the face of drastic changes, not the least of which is the simple fact of staggering mortality statistics.
Another theme that runs through many of these essays is that of conflict, perhaps surprising in its opposition to the previous notion–that funerals offer an occasion for communities to bond. Here again, dislocation plays a role as people move away from their traditional lands and as relaxation or refusal of traditional patterns of “right marriage”–compliance with the strictures imposed by skin groups–confuse allegiance with country. Relatives vie for the right to determine where the deceased will be interred. This phenomenon may not be entirely new: it is documented, for example, in Howard Morphy’s Journey to the Crocodile’s Nest (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1984), but in that book the emphasis seems to be more on negotiation among disparate legitimately constituted demands than on outright conflict.
The other source of potential conflict is the tension between traditional practices and those determined by either Christian institutions or by agencies of the state that seek to effect compliance with medical and hygienic principles. The evidence offered in several of these essays, though, suggests that there has been a reasonable degree of accommodation reached on this score in recent decades with funeral ceremonies now sometimes incorporating elements of Christian services; on other occasions a Christian minister will lead funeral rites after other rituals have been completed.
Apart from these overarching themes, Mortality, Mourning and Mortuary Practices in Indigenous Australia offers a wealth of specific detail about how communities and individuals deal with death in a wide variety of cultural contexts. Yasmine Musharbash’s lead-off article, “‘Sorry Business is Yapa Way'” for instance, is a classic ethnographic description of mortuary ritual practice among the Warlpiri. At a different end of the spectrum “A Life in Words: History and Society in Sabai Islands Tombstones” by Richard Davis details the changing ways in which grave markers in the Torres Strait region have evolved over time since “the coming of the light” with Christian missionaries. The details recorded in texts engraved on these tombstones speak not only of the individual’s life and works but of the changing modes of sociality and value in the society at large.
Other essays look at the process of dying at a very individual level. Among the best of these is Katie Glaskin’s “A Personal Reflection on a Saltwater Man and the Cumulative Effects of Loss” is a moving testament to one man’s sorrow in the face of the loss of relatives–sometimes to outright death, but sometimes in more wrenching circumstances of unexplained disappearance, a loss that in its very indeterminacy is harder to bear and creates prolonged mourning, unresolvable through the sparse comfort of funeral rites. The chief subject of her essay, a Bardi man she refers to as “B,” endured repeated losses of these sorts, which most likely influenced his own decline and may have hastened his death. Somewhat ironically, at the last, in a Perth hospital far from his saltwater home, the ministrations of the medical staff restored his spirits and helped his death to occur with a degree of acceptance he had been unable to achieve in his experience of the deaths of close relatives in years prior.
Craig Elliott’s “Social Death and Disenfranchised Grief: An Alyawarr Case Study” looks at death through a dual lens. Chronicling the life and death of one of the plaintiffs in the Gunner-Cubillo case that argued the federal government’s liability in the matter of the Stolen Generations, Elliott examines how child removal constituted a peculiar sort of death-in-life for Kwenentyay Gunner and complicated his return to the Alyawarr community as a adult, the double grieving his relatives endured, at his “social death” by removal from the community, and his final passing. This study is followed by Gaynor Macdonald’s “‘Promise Me You’ll Come to My Funeral’: Putting a Value on Wiradjuri Life Through Death” in which the author’s advance commitment to being present at her friend Sarah’s funeral not only assuages Sarah’s feeling of isolation and loneliness, but is a symbolic marker of value attached to her life by a white person in the face of an overwhelming sense of devaluation by the larger culture.
Each of this volume’s essays is affecting in its own way, offering keen observations on how individuals and communities respond to death, sometimes, in the case of the former, how a person confronts and prepares for his own end. From these detailed analyses, a further theme emerges, one that is movingly expressed in the final words offered by Frances and Howard Morphy in their afterword, “Demography and Destiny.” Although they speak of their own experience among the Yolngu, their lessons are generally applicable to all the cases described in this book.
In Yolngu society there is a deep personal involvement in the process of the death of others and a strong sense of community in the rituals that follow. There is no uncertainty as to how to respond to a death, or about how to approach the people who are closest kin to the dead person, though there may be anger at those thought to have contributed to the death and disagreement over the form that the burial will take. Yet those disagreements are themselves a means of bringing tension into the open so that resolution can be achieved before the burial takes place. It is the responsibility of kin to support the close family and to bring the society back to normal, to repair any breaches in the social fabric caused by the death and to return the living to everyday life, satisfied that sufficient has been done to uphold the memory of the deceased and to attend to the fate of the soul (pp. 212-213).
The Morphys’ contribution reminds us of the immediacy and closeness of death in Indigenous society, occurring as it often does in the very midst of family, unmediated by the more impersonal structures that Western society has developed, be they hospitals or undertakers, that remove much of the exigencies of the process from the closest of kin. In doing so, the essays of Mortality, Mourning and Mortuary Practices in Indigenous Australia illuminate not only the work of death among the societies of Aboriginal lands, but in our own as well.