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The Rich and Diverse Array of Death Rituals Around the Tasman Sea

Updated: Aug 10, 2023


Whakapapa (the interconnectedness of all things and everything in the world with a Spiritual essence.)

“The Knowledge of the realm of death makes it possible for the shaman to move freely back & forth and mediate those journeys for other people.”Stanislav Grof. The Aboriginal people of Australia and New Zealand place a profound value on that. In the wake of bereavement, an inherently communal affair, generational wisdom is cherished. In spite of their relatively small population size in Australia, Indigenous Australians have cultivated an impressive and varied range of funeral practices and death rituals over the course of millennia, predating the arrival of European settlers to the continent. The indigenous tribes of people living in Australia are referred to as aboriginal, their Trans Tasman counterparts and the indigenous or native population of New Zealand are labeled as Māori.


The Māori are the indigenous people of Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand. Despite centuries of colonization and cultural suppression, the Māori have managed to retain their cultural heritage, which is a vital part of the country’s identity. Luckily, the culture is thriving with renewed interest and respect for their language, art, music, and traditions, which were nearly extinct a few decades ago. Today, the Māori language is taught in schools, and there are efforts to make it the official language of New Zealand. It is also worth mentioning whakapapa, which refers to the interconnectedness of all things and everything in the world has a spiritual essence. Later we will take a look at oral tradition and storytelling to honor the deceased and keep their memories alive through generations. Māori culture is also becoming more visible in mainstream society, with businesses, politicians, and cultural ambassadors representing their unique heritage on the world stage.

Tangihanga~ Honoring the Maori deceased.

One of the most significant funeral rituals is the Tangihanga, a complex and deeply symbolic process that involves the entire community in honoring the deceased. In the Māori worldview death of one person has a ripple effect throughout the community. They believe that the spirit lingers near their body for several days after death. During this time, family members and close friends gather around the body to keep watch and offer prayers and support. This is known as the moe mai, or lying in state. Once the process is complete, the body is prepared for burial known as the whakamātenga. It involves washing and dressing the body in special clothes, often made from flax. The body is then placed on a whāriki, or woven mat, and surrounded by objects of significance, such as photographs, carvings, and personal items. Then we move to the whaikōrero or speeches. This is a time for family members and community leaders to speak about the life of the deceased, share stories, and offer words of comfort and support to the bereaved. The whaikōrero is a deeply emotional and powerful experience, and it can last for several hours. Following the whaikōrero, the body is taken to the marae, or communal meeting place, where the tangi, or funeral ceremony, takes place. The marae is a sacred space in Māori culture, and it is the site of many important rituals and ceremonies. During the tangi, the community comes together to perform a series of rituals like the haka (traditional Māori dance) that is performed as a way of expressing grief and honoring the deceased often accompanied by waiata, or songs, that reflect the sorrow.

The ultimate phase of the Tangihanga is the urupā, also known as the final resting place of the departed. This revered ground is carefully selected for its spiritual resonance and is embellished with meaningful adornments such as engravings, blooms, and other significant artifacts. In contemporary times, the Māori customs surrounding funerals have evolved to align with changing cultural and societal norms. The Māori people continue to revere their forefathers and their interdependence with the natural realm and unite in times of sorrow to console each other and commemorate the life of the deceased.

Aboriginal Dreamtime

Aboriginal religions are founded on stories of the mythical beings who created the world. According to their belief system, during the Creation Period, also known as the Dreamtime, the powerful Ancestral Beings sculpted the land, erecting mountains, carving out lakes, and creating plants and animals. For as long as 60,000 years, many Aboriginal societies held the conviction that the Ancestral Beings were responsible for providing sustenance in the form of animals and plants. Consequently, religious ceremonies held in reverence to the Ancestors were an indispensable part of daily life, intended to secure the continued prosperity of the community. Funeral rituals are likewise steeped in ceremony. While the precise beliefs may differ, a central aim of the funeral ceremony is to guarantee a safe passage for the spirit into the afterlife. Certain Aboriginal peoples hold that if the rituals are not executed correctly, the spirit can return to cause trouble.

The Aboriginal communities of Australia have long employed both cremation and burial as means of laying their cherished departed to rest, both in eras of old and in the present day. In times past, certain groups followed a bifurcated procedure whereby the deceased was placed atop an elevated structure for several months before their bones were adorned with crimson pigment and committed to a place of great import within the natural terrain, conveyed by the kin or interred. Nowadays, individuals with Aboriginal lineage usually receive a conventional burial or cremation, infused with cultural mores and ceremonies.

Death Rituals Around the Tasman Sea

Death Rituals Around the Tasman Sea funerals and mourning are, in Aboriginal culture, far from individual or private affairs. Rather, these events are an opportunity for the entire community to gather together and support one another in times of loss. These ceremonies can last for days, even weeks, and may comprise a series of rituals, songs, and dances, each with its own significance and structure specific to that community’s traditions. Children may even be excused from school to participate in these communal activities. One notable tradition amongst some Aboriginal groups is to refrain from speaking the name of the deceased, believing that to do so would disturb their spirit. Instead, they may use a substitute name such as ‘Kumanjayi’, ‘Kwementyaye’, or ‘Kunmanara’. Additionally, it is common for photographs or depictions of the deceased to be seen as a potential disturbance to their spirit, leading some families to refrain from displaying photographs of their loved ones after their passing. There is the smoking ceremony, a solemn practice conducted by a knowledgeable elder or spiritual guide. Eucalyptus leaves are burned, releasing a purifying smoke that is believed to offer protection against malevolent spirits. It is a powerful way for the spirit to journey back to the Dreaming. Another symbolic and sacred practice is the digging of the grave by the men of the family who use traditional digging sticks while connecting with a resting place on the earth.

Each Aboriginal community has its own unique funeral practices, but the communal aspect is a common thread throughout. The collective support and shared grief of the community serve as a powerful tribute to those who have passed, reminding us of the strength and resilience of these communities in the face of loss. These civilizations have cultivated, preserved, and maintained intricate funeral customs that call upon the entire community to pay their respects to the departed, holding great symbolic weight for the hope of a safe journey for the soul into the afterlife. They prize the wisdom of prior generations and espouse the interconnectedness of all things, prioritizing communal support and commemorating the deceased as a means of uniting people to mourn and share tales.



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