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Mortality, Mourning and Mortuary Practices in Indigenous Australia.

Mortality, Mourning and Mortuary Practices in Indigenous Australia

Edited by Katie Glaskin, Myrna Tonkinson, Yasmine Musharbash and Victoria Burbank

Farnham, UK and Burlington, USA: Ashgate. 2008

Pp. xx + 237

Price: 55.00 [pounds sterling]

This relatively short collection of ethnographic essays on death in contemporary Indigenous Australia is a timely and informative book that will enrich Aboriginal Studies and, potentialty, refine and challenge popular views about the 'unviable' state of Indigenous communities. Moved by the growing number of deaths and noticing the ever larger amount of time dedicated to mortuary rituals in their field research locations, the editors--all long-term ethnographers from the University of Western Australia--invited contributions that approach present day Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life-worlds through the lens of death-related practices.

Eleven chapters cover extensive and mostly the remote parts of the continent, including communities in Central Australia (Warlpiri, Alyawarr), Western Australia (Martu, Puntu, Ngarinyin, Bardi), New South Wales (Wiradjuri), northern Queensland (Murri), Arnhem Land (Yolngu), the Torres Strait Islands (Saibaians) and Cape York Peninsula (Wik). They all make clear the centrality of dealing with death in the social and emotional life of Indigenous Australians, who demonstrate a remarkable cultural resilience. In spire of in the eyes of some contributors even because of--a comparably high mortality (including of young adults) responses to death and dying have been socially productive and they are politically significant. Mortuary practices have become the most prevalent rituals in many remote and urbanized Aboriginal communities; at Yuendumu, the Warlpiri spend a third of their time in 'sorry business', and Wiradjuri funerals regularly attract hundreds of people, while it is not uncommon to find the entire Martu population congregate for a funeral. In their various forms--as older and transforming traditions of ritualized mourning ('sorry business'), burial, smoking and reburial, as Christian funerals, or as tombstone unveilings--they now play an unusually important role in processes of social differentiation and the reproduction of local and regional identities. 'Last rites' may reinforce the kin-based organization of groups and regional networks, affirm the significance of 'family' as a moral-political entity, preserve cultural continuity and autonomy, mediate the experience of change at both personal and collective levels, sustain a form of personhood that is strongly grounded in relationships with others, provide relief through the sharing and social recognition of grief, or even present the only manifestation of community. But not only the responses to death impact with such force on Aboriginal people's lives. As Marcus Barber explores in his insightful analysis of the social effects of the 'good slow death' of old men with authority, dying itself--that is, a person's demise and the decision where to die and be buried--can inject life into places. If extensive travel is a major avenue for attaining authority through knowledge and extensive networks of relationships, a person's subsequent decline and resulting immobility can have a stabilizing effect on the residential life of outstations, with clear social and health benefits for the family.

That dying is important in the making of places--in connection with ancestral transformations of body into site and person into ancestor--is a well-known theme in the Aboriginalist literature. And in this volume too, several authors point out the importance of grounding social identities in certain places that embody historical layers of belonging--be that traditional (totemic) countries, cemeteries, or the domestic space of the home yard. Gaynor Macdonald suggests for the Wiradjuri, one of the earliest colonized peoples in Australia, that older cosmological ('spiritual') meanings of 'emplacement' are now 'ontological' schemata that continue to emphasize the social imperatives characteristic of Aboriginal Australia at large. According to this ethnographer, the crowds that usually gather at Wiradjuri-Christian funerals reflect that the people still understand themselves as 'constituted through the mutual responsiveness of emplaced and embodied selves with and across the experiences of this life and ancestral life' (pp. 122-3). One could perhaps infer here that the falling away of specific totemic links to country bas made more readily visible the significance of social processes that underlie the symbolic systems of classification.

The people-place connection in the Aboriginal world appears writ large when it is severed. The sad story of Kwementyay Gunner, an Alyawarr man whose 'social death' as a member of the so-called Stolen Generation is discussed by Craig Elliott, demonstrates the iii effects of non-recognition--on the part of both the wider Australian society and the Aboriginal community. The essay focuses on a much-neglected dimension of the legacy of Aboriginal child removal policies: the 'disenfranchised grief' of the families involved whose personal, social and cultural losses have remained largely unknown and unacknowledged. It also reveals the difficulties of reintegrating the returning family member who, in accord with the cultural technique of containing overwhelming grief by suppressing all memory of a person, had been 'forgotten'.

Several chapters conclude with considerations about the link between 'Indigenous death' and the wider Australian society or the state. Macdonald surmises that a Wiradjuri woman's request that she will attend her funeral was a request for recognition from the white world 'which continually exacerbated the shame of non-acceptability' (p. 134); Richard Davies suggests that Sabaian epitaphs reveal that, in this community, the family is 'a unique form of consciousness that maps itself onto social space in ways that do not invite national imaginings' (p. 185); and, drawing on his work in central Cape York Peninsula, Benjamin Smith argues that current attempts to 'push Aboriginal people away from the past in order to effect "progress" and "development"' (pp. 202-3) will prove unrealistic because it ignores the relationship with the spirits of the dead--the 'old people' having become country and embodying a living past.

For those needing further enticement, here is a quick glance at some of the many interesting observations contained in this collection: women are increasingly influential in public domains through their role in the arts and as organizers of funerals (Barber, p. 162); Warlpiri 'sorry business' has replaced fertility rites as the largest ritual form today, while also being the artistically least developed and offering participants no advance in status or knowledge (Musharbash, p. 34); movement and travel might be a form of coping with grief (Glaskin, p. 92) or, alternatively, the bereaved wife and her children must remain 'sitting still in one place', being 'reduced to a position of passive dependency' in the early stages of mourning, if they are to become autonomous again later on (Redmond, pp. 81-2); power over the vitality of language is a marker of being alive and contrasted with the 'whispered vocalizations' of the breathless mourner who emulates the deceased's body (Redmond, p. 77); Wiradjuri mourners call out the name of the deceased whereas desert people avoid it; and the exchange of blankets in funeral and reburial ceremonies derives from their historical value as desired components of rations in one case (the Martu described by Tonkinson, p. 46), and from their similarity to traditional paper-bark mortuary wrappings 'attributed with a maternal capacity to envelop, restore or replace the lost body' in another (the Ngarinyin described by Redmond, p. 82).

Finally, there are a few things that I have found less satisfactory. First the omissions: barely any figures are provided to help the uninformed reader gain a better perspective on the scale and nature of mortality in Indigenous Australia, not even in the otherwise excellent epilogue by Frances and Howard Morphy on 'demography as destiny'. Then, perhaps because most contributors are concerned to demonstrate the positive effects of death and the genuineness of feelings of bereavement (without, however, drawing either on Radcliffe-Brown's classic discussion of the subject or Nancy Munn's), no author mentions the old practice of abandoning the dying. And there are other shortcomings. The chapters present a variety of theoretical orientations, immediate concerns, and styles of writing. This makes for interesting reading, but impedes the systematic comparison of what may be the most significant social institution to have recently evolved in Indigenous Australia. For instance, it would be worthwhile to compare within the desert region (represented in rive chapters) the forms of mortuary practices and the constellation of relatives involved in these, especially given the recent origin of the section systems. Such might prove more productive than highlighting parallels with traditions in various PNG societies, which the series editors have done without explaining why. I have also found less convincing the attempt by some contributors to portray their own sense of distress as friends and collaborators with Aboriginal families; none has 'bought into' the 'politics of suffering', but it is not so clear what certain personal statements are supposed to achieve analytically. Perhaps the involvement of the ethnographer in the experience of death in their research communities points to another difficulty--the question of the cross-cultural validity of commonly employed juxtapositions, such as public-private, personal-social, family-state, ontological-spiritual, genuine-ritualized. All of these call for further investigation, as does the bigger question of the nature and transformation of Indigenous subjectivities that dealing with death bas brought forth in this overall fine book.

Ute Eickelkamp

Independent scholar
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Author:Eickelkamp, Ute
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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