Aboriginal Beliefs About Death and Afterlife

While there are many Indigenous communities, cultures, and languages, the belief that life is one part of a spirit’s journey is shared by many. When a loved one, extended family member or Elder passes away, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people attend to Sorry Business–the time after a bereavement where they celebrate the person’s life, honour their death, and assist their spirit on its onward travels.

During this time, an Indigenous person may request cultural leave from their workplace to attend sacred ceremonies, gather with the community to grieve, and participate in events over several days, each with an important meaning, structure, and tradition.

Understanding Sorry Business for First Nations Communities

What is Sorry Business in Aboriginal culture? As we’ve touched on, ‘Sorry Business’ is a broad-scope term that indicates a valuable time for mourning and where Indigenous people will come together to attend funerals, events, ceremonies, and activities. Rather than holding one funeral and a wake or celebration of life immediately after, as is the norm in Western cultures, Aboriginal people often observe several events over a week or more, where kinship beliefs mean that many more people will be welcome and obligated to attend.

Because Indigenous people may have many mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, and because life expectancy averages are lower within First Nations communities, these periods of grief and remembrance may last longer and relate to a larger number of individuals whom the person considers their family. Parents and guardians may request a child be granted permission to leave school for these events, and adults may request cultural leave, ensuring they can participate in ceremonies that hold great value and are embedded in cultural traditions, heritage, and respect for those who have been lost.

Important Traditions and Beliefs Around Death and Bereavement for Aboriginal People

It is essential to reiterate that Aboriginal groups, tribes, and communities have diverse beliefs, and their approach to death and the afterlife may differ. Many Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, for example, believe that they should not speak the name of the person who has passed away. 

Speaking their name or showing a photograph may be thought to disturb the spirit and prevent it from leaving safely. Communities often use alternative names, such as ‘Kunmanara’ or ‘Kwementyaye,’ during commemorative ceremonies.

Indigenous Funerals and Periods of Mourning

Families may remain at home for some time following the death of a loved one, followed by cleansing ceremonies. These long-established traditions assist the spirit, help loved ones cope with a loss, and send a person safely onto the next part of their journey.

A person with a kinship relationship with the deceased person may feel a strong obligation and responsibility to participate in Sorry Business. Their role within a memorial ceremony or funeral may also depend on the kinship system.

It is vital for workforces and other parties to recognise that Sorry Business is not optional or a singular event that an individual can choose whether to attend. Instead, their obligations to a loved one, Elder, or someone with whom they share kinship ties are integral to their culture and connection to the land, community, and people.

Most funerals involve extended communities, where people unite in mourning and provide support for one another. Some may feel unable to attend any other meeting or event while Sorry Business continues, a belief upheld by many First Nations people and respected by organisations and councils within the area.

Do Aboriginal and First Nations Islander People Believe in the Afterlife?

While there is no universally held belief, many Indigenous people believe that when we leave this world, we enter the Land of the Dead. This space does not have a heaven or hell, nor is admittance dependent on how a person lived while they were alive. Instead, the ceremonies and rites followed when somebody dies are crucial to the path of the spirit, clearing the way so that it can leave the body and travel on–using prayers, medicines, songs, and rituals.

The Eternal Dreaming is a worldview, which is the way many Aboriginal people perceive the relationship between the spirit, our physical environment, and our earthly bodies. Death may be sad for loved ones and communities, but it does not mean a spirit ceases to exist. With the right care and respect, the spirit can continue an ongoing cycle of life, death, transition, and rebirth.

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