People

Mourning an Aboriginal death

The Aboriginal tradition of not naming a dead person can have bizarre implications.

Sorry business includes whole families, affects work and can last for days.

Why can’t you name a dead Aboriginal person?

Many Aboriginal films, books or websites warn Aboriginal people that they might show images of Indigenous people who have passed away. But some don’t. Why is this so?

The tradition not to depict dead people or voice their (first) names is very old [1]. Traditional law across Australia said that a dead person’s name could not be said because you would recall and disturb their spirit. After the invasion this law was adapted to images as well.

Today these strict laws are generally not followed where colonisation first happened, like on Australia’s east coast and in the southern parts of the country.

Some media name deceased people, some don't. Naming the dead in the media. While The Australian newspaper published the full name of a deceased Aboriginal person (top) the National Indigenous Times newspaper followed traditional protocol and withheld the name (below) [2,3].

The Indigenous Koori Mail newspaper observes naming protocols. Naming protocols. Before media uses the first name of a deceased Indigenous person they have to seek permission from the family [4].

In the Northern Territory, where traditional Aboriginal life is stronger and left more intact, the tradition of not naming the dead is still more prevalent.

Today naming protocols differ from place to place, community to community [5] and it is often a personal decision if names and images of a deceased Aboriginal person can be spoken or published.

Even in places where, traditionally, the names of deceased people are not spoken or written, families and communities may sometimes decide that circumstances permit the names of their deceased loved ones to be used.

Substitute names

In some areas, families may determine that a substitute name such as ‘Kumantjayi’, ‘Kwementyaye’ or ‘Kunmanara’ may be used instead of a deceased person’s first name for a period. This is also known as a ‘bereavement term’.

For example, ‘Kumantjayi Perkins’ is now increasingly referred to once again as the late ‘Charles Perkins’ [5].

Not allowed to say ‘Tuesday’

A reader of the ABC website recalls how substitute names can make everyday life more complicated [6].

“In one community that I had associations with in central Australia white officials in the 1930’s and 40’s had given many people ‘white’ names based on the day of the week on which they were born.

“When I was there in the 1970’s several of these people had recently died.

“This caused problems when children at school were reciting the days of the week. The word ‘Kwementyaye’ was used locally in place of a name that couldn’t be used. The week at school accordingly became ‘Monday, Kwementyaye, Wednesday, Kwementyaye, Kwementyaye, Kwementyaye, Sunday’. Within a couple of years, though, all of the days of the week could be freely used again.”

Sorry business

When Aboriginal people mourn the loss of a family member they follow Aboriginal death ceremonies, or ‘sorry business’. Aunty Margaret Parker from the Punjima people in north-west Western Australia describes what happens in an Aboriginal community when someone dies [7].

Sorry Business Sorry business is not only mourning a deceased person but also the loss of family members due to imprisonment, drugs or alcohol. Illustration: [8]

“A cultural practice of our people of great importance relates to our attitude to death in our families. Like when we have someone passed away in our families and not even our own close families, the family belongs to us all, you know. The whole community gets together and shares that sorrow within the whole community.”

“It don’t have to be a close family. We say it is close because of our kinship ties and that means it’s family. We all get together till that funeral, till we put that person away. So every time someone comes in to town whom we haven’t seen, that could be two or three days after we get the bad news, we all get together and meet that person, we have to drop what we’re doing and get together.”

“We have to cry, in sorrow, share our grief by crying and that’s how we break that, by sharing together as a community. This is an important aspect of our culture. And this is how we are brought up. I see it is lacking in a lot of other towns where we go. We go there to meet people and to share our sorrows and the white way of living in the town is breaking our culture.”

“And a lot of towns you go to for funerals, want to do their own little individual things, instead of dropping what they’re doing to get together to meet the people coming in from out of town. The family has to sit in one house, or one area, so people know that they have to go straight into that place and meet up. We go and pay our respects. You supposed to just sit down and meet, eat together, share, until that body is put away, you know. Afterwards, we do whatever we want to do, after we leave that certain family.”

“Nowadays, people just come up and shake hands, want to shake hands all the time. To me it’s hurting, because we all know and we grew up in our culture system and that means we should embrace others to share the sorrow, men and women.”

Fact In Aboriginal society when somebody passes away, the family moves out of that house and another moves in. Families swap houses [9].

Footnotes

View article sources (9)

[1] 'The story of black Australia', WAToday.com.au, 9/10/2008
[2] 'Boost in funds for outback nursing homes', The Australian, 22/9/2008
[3] Press Cuts, NIT, 2/10/2008 p.26
[4] 'Palm rallies to aid family', Koori Mail 453 p.7
[5] Personal communication with Kirstie Parker, editor Koori Mail
[6] 'Aboriginal leader's face to gaze from high-rise', http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/09/15/3012199.htm acces,sed 23/10/2010
[7] 'Karijini Mirlimirli', Noel Olive, Fremantle Arts Centre Press 1997 pp.126
[8] 'Sorry Business - Grief and Loss', brochure, Indigenous Substance Misuse Health Promotion Unit 2004
[9] 'The NT Intervention - Six Years On', NewMatilda.com 21/6/2013

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:

www.CreativeSpirits.info,
Aboriginal culture - People - Mourning an Aboriginal death, retrieved 26 November 2014