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The Native Tribes of North Central Australia, by Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen [1899], at

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Chapter XIV Customs Relating to Burial and Mourning

Earth burial in the Arunta tribe—Depression made on the side of the grave facing the place from which the spirit of the individual came originally—Hair cut off a man—As a general rule nothing buried with the body—Burning of the camp—Amongst the Warramunga and northern tribes the body is placed on a platform in a tree until the flesh has shrivelled up—Degrees of silence to be observed by different individuals in regard to mentioning the name of the dead—Special restrictions on the sons-in-law of a dead man—The widow paints herself with pipeclay, and at first remains in camp, silent, speaking by means of gesture language—Ceremony to remove the ban of silence—Widow and younger brothers—Ceremony of Urpmilchima at the grave—Wearing of the bone chaplet—The women cutting themselves upon the grave—Urpmilchima of a woman—No man allowed to attend the ceremony at the grave—The object of painting the body white is to attract the attention of the spirit.

WITHIN a very short time of death the body in the Arunta tribe is buried. It is placed in a sitting position with the knees doubled up against the chin, and is thus interred in a round hole in the ground, the earth being piled directly on to the body so as to make a low mound with a depression on one side. This is always made on the side which faces towards the direction of the dead man or woman's camping ground in the Alcheringa, that is the spot which he or she inhabited whilst in spirit form: the object of this is to allow of easy ingress and egress to the Ulthana or spirit which is supposed to spend part of the time until the final ceremony of mourning has been enacted in the grave, part watching over near relatives, and part in the company of its Arumburinga, that is its spiritual double who lives at the Nanja spot.

In the case of a man the hair is cut off from his head and his necklaces, armlets and fur string used for winding round his head are carefully preserved for further use. In the Eastern Arunta it is said that sometimes a little wooden vessel used p. 498 in camp for holding small objects may be buried with the man, but this is the only instance which has come to our knowledge in which anything ordinarily used is buried in the grave. Amongst the Udnirringita (witchetty grub) people one or more of the round stone Churinga which are supposed to represent the eggs of the grub in the Alcheringa may be buried with the man, but this is the only instance in which we can find that anything of a sacred nature is buried with him.

As soon as burial has taken place, the man or woman's camp in which death occurred is at once burnt down, and all the contents are then destroyed—in the case of a woman nothing whatever being preserved—and the whole of the local encampment is shifted to a new place. Earth burial directly after death occurs from the Urabunna tribe in the south as far north as the Warramunga at Tennant's Creek. Amongst the latter the body is at first placed on a platform made of boughs in a tree until such time as the flesh has disappeared, when the bones, with the exception of the smaller ones from the arms which are used for the purpose of making pointing bones, are taken down and buried.

It is generally supposed that amongst Australian natives the name of a dead man is never mentioned. This is not however strictly true as regards the Arunta tribe. There are various degrees of silence to be observed by different persons and these are dependent upon the mutual relationship which existed between the dead and living individual. During the period of mourning which follows immediately upon the death of a man and occupies a period of from twelve to eighteen months, no person must mention the name of the deceased except it be absolutely necessary to do so, and then only in a whisper for fear of disturbing and annoying the man's spirit which in ghost form, or as they call it, Ulthana, walks about. If the Ulthana hears his name mentioned he comes to the conclusion that his relatives are not properly mourning for him—if their grief were genuine it would cause them too much pain to hear his name mentioned to allow them to do so—and so he will come and trouble them in their sleep, to show them that he is not pleased with them.

All individuals who are Okilia Oknia, Mia, Ungaraitcha, p. 499 Uwinna, or Mura of the dead man or woman may never mention his or her name, nor may they ever go near to the grave when once the ceremony of Urpmilchima, shortly to be described, has been performed. Those who were Allira, Itia, Umbirna, Umba, Unkulla, Unawa, Ikuntera, Chimmia, or Arunga may, when the time of mourning is over, speak of the dead and mention his name without fear of incurring the anger of the Ulthana. As a matter of fact the grave is very seldom indeed visited by any one for a long time after the burial; no camp will be formed close to where a grave has been made for at least two years' time for fear of disturbing the Ulthana.

The Gammona of the deceased, that is the men who may lawfully marry his daughters—whether they actually p. 500 do so or not makes no difference—must not only never mention his name, but they neither attend the actual burial, nor do they take any part in the subsequent mourning ceremonies which are carried on at the grave. It is their duty to cut themselves on the shoulder when the man who is their Ikuntera or father-in-law dies. If a son-in-law does not well and faithfully perform this cutting rite, which is called Unangara, then some Ikuntera will punish him by giving away his special Unawa or wife to some other man to appease the Ulthana of the dead father-in-law.

The name of the latter is strictly tabu to the Gammona, and if by any chance he should hear the name mentioned in camp, he will at once rattle his boomerangs together so as to prevent his knowing what is being said.

Every man bears on his shoulders, as will be seen clearly in many of the illustrations, the raised cicatrices, which exist as the permanent record of the fact that he has fulfilled his duty to a dead father-in-law.

When a man dies his special Unawa or Unawas smear their hair, faces and breasts with white pipeclay and remain silent for a certain time until a ceremony called Aralkililima has been performed. 1 The widow is called Inpirta, which means the whitened one in reference to the pipeclay. Some times she smears over the pipeclay ashes from a fire, in which case she is called Ura-inpirta, ura meaning fire. In some of the more northern tribes, as for example amongst the Warramunga living on Tennant's Creek, the widows are not allowed to speak for sometimes as long a period as twelve months, during the whole of which time they communicate only by means of gesture language. In the latter they are so proficient that they prefer, even when there is no obligation upon them to do so, to use it in preference to speaking. Not seldom, when a party of women are in camp, there will be almost perfect silence and yet a brisk conversation is all the while being conducted on their fingers or rather with their hands and arms, as many of the signs are made by putting

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the hands, or perhaps the elbows, in varying positions. Many of the positions assumed by the fingers are such that it is not at all easy for a white man to imitate them, and yet by long practice the native can place his fingers in the most wonderful variety of positions with regard to one another and at the same time move them about in a way which no white man can, except with extreme difficulty and very slowly.

When among the Arunta the widow wishes the ban of silence to be removed, she gathers a large wooden vessel, called a Tirna, full of some edible seed or small tuber and smears herself afresh with white pipeclay at the Erlukwirra, or women's camp, where she has been living since her husband's death. Carrying the Tirna, and accompanied by the women whom she has gathered together for the purpose, she walks to the centre of the encampment midway between the two sections of the community, that is to the creek or whatever natural feature it may be which serves to divide the Bulthara and Panunga moiety from the Kumara and Purula. Here they all sit down and cry loudly, whereupon the men who were the Allira and Itia, that is the sons and younger brothers of the dead man (blood and tribal), come up and join the party. The men take the Tirna from the hands of the widow and, as many as possible taking hold of it, they shout loudly “Wah! wah! wah!” The women except the widow stop crying and join in the shout. After a short time the Tirna p. 502 is held close to, but not touching, the face of the widow and passes are made to right and left of her cheeks, while all again shout “Wah! wah! wah!” The widow now stops her crying and utters the same shout, only in subdued tones. After a few minutes the Tirna is passed to the rear of the men who now, squatting on the ground and holding their shields in both hands, strike them heavily on the ground in front of the women who are standing. The widow springs to her feet and joins in the shouts of “Wah! wah! wah!” which accompany for some minutes the striking of the shields. When this is over the men disperse to their camps and eat the food brought in the Tirna by the widow, who is now free to speak to them, though she still continues to smear herself with pipeclay. The meaning of this ceremony, as symbolised by the gathering of the tubers or grass seed, is that the widow is about to resume the ordinary occupations of a woman's life, which have been to a large extent suspended while she remained in camp in what we may call deep mourning. It is in fact closely akin in feeling to the transition from deep to narrow black-edged paper amongst certain more highly civilised peoples. The offering to the sons and younger brothers is intended both to show them that she has properly carried out the first period of mourning and to gain their goodwill as they, especially the younger brothers, are supposed to be for some time displeased with a woman when her husband is dead and she is alive. In fact a younger brother meeting the wife of a dead elder brother out in the bush, performing the ordinary duties of a woman such as hunting for “yams” within a short time of her husband's death, would be quite justified in spearing her. The only reason that the natives give for this hostile feeling is that it grieves them too much when they see the widow because it reminds them of the dead man. This however can scarcely be the whole reason, as the same rule does not apply to the elder brothers, and very probably the real explanation of the feeling is associated, in some way, with the custom according to which the widow will, when the final stage of mourning is over, become the wife of one of these younger brothers whom at first she has to carefully avoid.

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After the lapse of perhaps twelve or eighteen months the ceremony of Urpmilchima is performed at the grave. The meaning of this term is “trampling the twigs on the grave.”

Previously to this the widow has been saving up small bones of any animal such as the jaws of opossums or rabbit-kangaroos, or leg and arm bones of various small animals. She also procures the same from her tribal sisters. From the female Itia, Allira and Umba of the dead man she obtains short locks of hair to which by means of Atcha, the resin obtained from the porcupine grass, she attaches firmly the bones, which are then hung on, in little groups, to one of the hair head rings which are commonly worn by women. In addition she procures Alpita and makes plumes out of the tail feathers of the ring-necked parrot or of the black cockatoo. In this way a hideous and bulky chaplet is made which the women call Aramurilia and the men Chimurilia—why they should have separate names we cannot say, but they are both applied to the same chaplet and have nothing to do with whether it is concerned with the Urpmilchima of a man or woman.

When these preparations have been made the widow is invited by a younger brother of the dead man to visit the grave or Ulkna and there to take part in the ceremony of Urpmilchima. The date is determined by the tribal brothers and sons of the dead man and on the appointed day the widow is painted all, or nearly all over, with fresh pipeclay.

Probably in different parts of the tribe the ceremony varies to a certain extent in details, and it may also vary somewhat according to whether the dead man was held in great or little esteem. The following is an account of the Urpmilchima as it was celebrated in the case of the brother of the present Alatunja of the Alice Springs group. The women, on the appointed day, were assembled at the Erlukwirra painting the widow; the men were sitting a few hundred yards away on the line of route from the camp to the grave. The Oknia, Okilia, Itia, and Allira, were decorated on the front of the body with a Y-shaped figure, painted of course in pipeclay, white being the colour of mourning. The Gammona sat apart with bent heads and nearest to them p. 504 were their Allira, that is their sons blood and tribal. When the painting of the widow was complete, the women approached from the Erlukwirra uttering their peculiar mournful wail, a weird sound well-known to all who have spent the night camped near to a group of natives amongst whom a death has occurred at all recently. The lead was taken by the widow who was carrying the Chimurilia in a wooden pitchi. They came on until the spot was reached at which the Gammona were seated and approached in such a way as to come up behind the latter. Then, standing behind each man, the widow thrust the pitchi under the arms and on to the lap of each one in turn. There it was allowed to remain, held by the man for some minutes, the women crying loudly and the men with bent heads shedding tears but uttering no sound. As the pitchi rested on the lap of each man, the widow and other men who were Unawa with the dead man and who were in consequence Mura to the Gammona, embraced the latter from behind. These women were, it must be remembered, those who are strictly prohibited from speaking to or having any intercourse with the men in question, to whom they were tribally mothers-in-law, which will account for the fact that they approached them from behind as if in recognition of this mutual relationship of Mura. After this was over the sons of the Gammona were treated in just the same way, and then these two sets of men remained seated on the ground while all the other men, followed by the women, started off for the grave. About midway the party was met by the eldest son of the deceased's eldest brother and a halt was made. Taking the Chimurilia—two in number—from the pitchi he approached each man who was Oknia, Okilia, Itia, Ikuntera, Umbirna, and Allira of the dead man and embraced them all in turn, pressing as he did so the Chimurilia against their stomachs. Then he placed one Chimurilia on the head of the widow, and the other on that of a younger sister of the dead man, and taking from the pitchi some Okincha-lanina or fur string rings, he tore the string tags off and placed the rings on the heads of women who were Allira or Umba of the dead man. The tufts of feathers of the ring-necked parrot were p. 505 stuck in the hair behind the ears over which hung Alpita or tail tips.

When the putting on of the Chimurilia, &c., was complete, the party, led by the man who had superintended this part of the proceedings, went on, each man carrying a shield and spear-thrower. No words were spoken, and the only sound was the wailing of the women. A visit was first paid to the camp where the man died, and, dancing round the charred remains (when a native dies his camp is at once destroyed by fire) they all shouted “Wah! wah! wah! wa-a-ah!” the men p. 506 as they did so beating the air with their spear-throwers, which were grasped in the centre instead of at one end, and held with their hollow side outwards—suggestive somewhat of the reversed arms at a military funeral. The shields were held at rest in the left hand. The women joined in the dancing and shouting, beating the air with the palms of their hands, which faced away from the body with the fingers widely distended, the idea being to drive the spirit away from the old camp which it is supposed to haunt. Those women who were Mia, Uwinna, and Mura of the dead man did not join in the shouting, or make any movement with the arms, but wailed loudly and threw themselves on to the ground. When the dancing, which lasted about ten minutes, was over, the whole party proceeded to the grave at a run, the leader making a circuit away from the main party, shouting loudly with very prolonged intonation “Ba-au! ba-au!” The idea of the leading man making a circuit was, perhaps, though the natives could give no explanation, to prevent the spirit from doubling back to the camp from which they were supposed to be driving him. The idea is that the spirit is frightened when he hears the noise and sees the widow coming on wearing the Chimurilia, and being driven on takes refuge at the bottom of the grave. The main party went on shouting in suppressed tones “Wah! wah!” the men keeping time by beating the air with their spear-throwers, held as previously described, while the women followed behind.

The leader, who had been running more rapidly than the rest, arrived at the grave just before the others, and with a final and much prolonged “Ba-au!” jumped on to the grave into which the spirit was supposed to have fled and began dancing wildly. He was quickly followed by the others, all of whom, except the Mia, Uwinna, and Mura women, who lay down on the ground close by, began to dance backwards and forwards on and around the grave shouting “Wah! wah!” and beating the air downwards as if to drive the spirit down, while with their feet they stamped upon and broke the twigs with which a newly made grave is always covered. When these were thoroughly broken up the dancing ceased, the men separated from the women and went to one side, p. 507 while the widow and other women cleared up the débris which was carried a little distance away from the grave, immediately around which a space was cleared for a few yards. When this had been done the Mia, Uwinna, and Mura women, who had meanwhile been lying prostrate, wailing at the top of their voices, and now and again striking the ground with their bodies, got up and approached the grave. Gathered around this, they struck and cut their heads with fighting clubs, inflicting on themselves often severe wounds from which the blood flowed on to the grave. After a little time the cutting ceased and they moved away. The men stood solemnly on one side while the widow came forward with her sisters, blood and tribal, and scratched a hole in the top of the grave When this was deep enough the widow and the younger woman took the Chimurilia off their heads and, while all the women cried loudly, tore them to pieces, and, kneeling over the grave, deposited the remains in the hole. This done the fur string rings were treated in the same way, the feather tufts and Alpita were placed in the hole, above these was put the pitchi, in which the Chimurilia had been carried, and then the earth was heaped up. When this had been done the men prostrated themselves for a few minutes on the grave. When they got up their place was taken by the widow and other Unawa women, and lastly the Mia, Uwinna, and Mura women came and lay down.

After this was over, the widow, standing by the grave, rubbed off the white pipeclay from her body, thus showing that her mourning was at an end. She may still, if she likes, paint a narrow white band on her forehead, which is regarded as an intimation that she is not anxious to marry at present, as she still mourns, though to a less degree than before, for the dead man.

The spirit of the dead man was supposed to have been watching all these proceedings as he lay at the bottom of the grave. From the fact of the widow's having painted herself with white, and having made and worn the Chimurilia, he knows that he has been properly mourned for, while the fact of her wearing in her hair the gay feathers of the ring-neck p. 508 parrot shows him that her period of mourning has come to an end. Having had similar experiences during his own life-time he recognises that, with the Chimurilia, she buries the sorrow of herself and of his relatives and friends. The loud shouting of the men and women shows him that they do not wish to be frightened by him in his present state, and that they will be angry with him if he does not rest. Should he at any time forget the wishes of the survivors, then the presence of the broken up Chimurilias will remind him of them. He may still watch over his friends, guard them from harm, and visit them in dreams, but he must not come in such a way as to frighten them.

In the case of every grave, it may here be noted that the earth is always especially heaped up on one side; the side on which it is less heaped up, or on which sometimes a slight depression is left, is always the one facing towards the place at which, in the Alcheringa, the ancestor of the man lived and at which place the spirit double of the man has lived ever since with whom the Ulthana will now, for the most part, live.

In the case of the Urpmilchima of a woman the proceedings are somewhat different, and the following describes what took place at one which was held some twelve months after the death of a woman at Alice Springs.

All the women in the camp assembled at the Erlukwirra shortly after sunrise. The actual mother of the deceased was painted deeply all over with pipeclay, the tribal Mias were painted with the same material, but to a lesser extent, the Ungaraitcha had bands of white across the foreheads and chests, the Uwinnas were painted with dry yellow ochre on the body and head, and had also white bands across the forehead. After about ten minutes had been spent in embracing one another, while a continuous wailing was kept up, a start was made for the grave. After going a short distance they were met by a man who was a blood brother of the dead woman, and was accompanied by a number of his tribal brothers. Every one sat down and the lamenting again began. The Ungaraitcha, who carried the pitchi containing p. 509 the Chimurilias, handed it to the brother, who bowed his head over it while he pressed it against his stomach for a minute or two, after which he removed one of the Chimurilias and placed it upon his mother's head. After it had been worn by the woman for a short time she replaced it in the pitchi, which was then taken by the Ungaraitcha and pressed against the stomach of each man in turn, the idea being to assuage their sorrow. The Chimurilias were then taken by the brother and placed on the heads of two tribal Ungaraitcha of the dead woman, and the party started for the grave, led, but only for a short distance, by the brother, all the other men remaining behind. No man is allowed to attend the Urpmilchima of a woman.

On the way to the grave the actual mother often threw herself heavily on the ground and attempted to cut her head with a digging stick. Each time she did so she was picked up by two women, whose duty it appeared to be to prevent her from hurting herself too much; but by the time that the grave was reached her body was a mass of bruises and covered over with sharp, three-cornered prickles. At the grave she threw herself upon it, tearing up the earth with her hands and being literally danced upon by the other women. Then all the Mias and Uwinnas threw themselves on the grave, the Mias cutting and hitting each other about the body until they were streaming with blood. Each of them carried a digging stick, which was used unsparingly on its owner's head and on those of the others, no one attempting to ward off the blows which they even invited. Amongst the Mias was an aged cripple, who was carried to the ground, and was one of the most keen participators in the ceremony. The Uwinnas though hard hit were not cut as were the Mias. After some time the other women dragged the Mias and Uwinnas away and then the Ungaraitcha scraped a hole in the earth in which, after tearing them up, the Chimurilias were deposited. Once more the Mias threw themselves on the grave cutting each other's heads. The weeping and wailing of the women who were standing round seemed to drive them almost frenzied, and the blood, streaming down their bodies over the white p. 510 pipe-clay, gave them a ghastly appearance. At last only the old mother was left crouching alone, utterly exhausted and moaning weakly on the grave. The Ungaraitcha approached her, and, rubbing off the pipe-clay, lifted her up. After this the ceremony came to an end and the grave was smoothed down and left.

No Mia would think of being absent from an Urpmilchima ceremony, which, though the Australian native cannot be supposed to feel pain as acutely as the average white man does, must yet involve no small amount of physical suffering. The women seem to work themselves up into a perfect frenzy, and to become quite careless as to the way in which they cut and hack themselves about, with, however, this restriction, notable on all such occasions, that however frenzied they apparently become no vital part is injured, the cutting being confined to such parts as the shoulders, scalp, and legs.

To those who have had no personal contact with savages, such as the Australian natives, and have never seen them at times when they are excited by the performance of ceremonies, the carrying out of which forms a most important feature in their lives, the above account may appear to be exaggerated. It is not for a moment to be supposed that the self-inflicted pain and the loud lamentings are to be taken as a measure of the grief actually felt. To a certain extent, perhaps to a very large one, the excessive display is due to the fact that it is a tribal custom, and as such has a very strong hold upon the imagination of a people whose every action is bound and limited by custom. There is nothing to which a blackfellow is so sensitive as to the contempt and ridicule of his fellows, to which non-compliance with a custom such as this will expose him. Partly, also, must be taken into account the fear which a native has that, unless a sufficient amount of grief be displayed, he will be harmed by the offended Ulthana or spirit of the dead man. In many respects the mind of the Australian native is like that of a child amongst ourselves. One moment he will be in a passion of grief or rage, and the next, if anything attracts his fancy, his p. 511 humour will rapidly change and tears will give place to laughter. At the same time, he is certainly capable of genuine grief and of real affection for his children.

It may finally be pointed out that, in connection with the custom of painting the body of the mourner with white pipe-clay, there is no idea of concealing from the spirit of the dead person the identity of the mourner; on the other hand, the idea is to render him or her more conspicuous, and so to allow the spirit to see that it is being properly mourned for.


500:1 Amongst the Warramunga tribe, the widow crops her hair short, and after cutting open the middle line of the scalp, runs a fire-stick along the wound, often with serious results.

Next: Chapter XV. The Iruntarinia and Arumburinga, or Spirit Individuals