Frazer Blog

Cultural spotlight: Indigenous Australian funerals

by | Oct 4, 2016 | Cultural Spotlight, For Families

Uluru Ayers Rock in Australia at dusk

Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.

But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.

This article takes a look at funeral traditions for the indigenous peoples of Australia and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Read about Mexican funeral traditions here and Greek funeral traditions here.

Indigenous Australians are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia. They are estimated to have lived on the Australian continent for tens of thousands of years.

Though many modern indigenous peoples have adopted the English language and participate in modern society, there are still some differences in their culture. One big difference is the way in which they care for their dead.

Different Between Indigenous Groups

Though many indigenous peoples are lumped together and referred to as aboriginal, there actually are many different groups of these indigenous peoples and they all practice different mortuary traditions.

Despite the differences, though, there are a few things that most of these groups have in common while caring for their dead.

Limited Speech

Many indigenous peoples refuse to speak at all during the mourning period, or they will at least choose not to speak the name of the deceased. They will sometimes refer to the person as “Kumantjayi,” “Kwementyaye,” or “Kunmanara” instead.

Those who have the same name as the deceased will even change their name in most instances.

Cremation and Burial

Indigenous peoples in Australia have been practicing both burials and cremations for tens of thousands of years. The oldest cremated remains found are believed to be between 40,000 and 68,000 years old.

Bad Spirits

When an indigenous person passes away, their family and friends do their best to ensure that their spirit does not stay around and cause trouble. This can include using smoke to drive the spirit away and building mounds of dirt or placing sticks on the ground to separate the graves from the campsites.

Many families will get rid of the deceased’s belongings, and even move out of their house and into a new one so that the spirit will not disrupt their lives or cause mischief.


Ochre, which is earth with traces of rust that give it a yellow, orange, or red color, is often used in funerals. Some families use it to color the deceased’s home, others will use it on the bones of their deceased after their bodies have decayed to bones.

Sorry Camps

In some indigenous cultures, the whole community comes together after a death to share in the sorrow the family feels. Families who move out of their homes especially find comfort in the support of their community, and some will even swap homes.


  1. Lorrie Muriel

    Actually, the mortuary traditions of the Indigenous people of the United States are quite a bit different than the mortuary customs of the rest of the U.S. How do I know? I’m a 20 year plus funeral director on an Indian reservation in Arizona.

    • Kim Stacey

      I so appreciate your insights, Lorrie! Thank you so much for setting the record straight!


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