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Balgo is a group of Aboriginal peoples in Western Australia. The name Balgo means “rice grass”.

The Natives of the western desert of Balgo do not fear death, they accept it. They are just afraid to die forgotten, in loneliness, or lost, in case their spirit doesn’t find its way toward the ancestor’s world.

Death is therefore not an end in itself but rather a passage to another state of being.

The spirits of the dead are rarely considered evil or dangerous to the living.

However, for the good of the whole community, they shouldn’t hang around in the world of living.

Balgo family

When someone dies, they practice different rituals, then the spirit starts dividing itself as follow:

– a part returns to the various sites associated with the deceased’s totems

– the child spirit returns to its conception site, where it rests, and then starts preparing for a new incarnation

– a part joins the afterlife and remains there forever.

The spirits of those recently deceased, who have not yet returned to their respective conception sites, serve as intermediaries to transfer messages and memories to the living.

This communication happens as songs, images, ritual gestures, and sometimes dreams. The most appreciated form is to meet the deceased parents in the dreams.

The Aboriginal funeral rites, called the « sorry business » are long and complex. These rituals last several months, help and allow the spirit to find its way to the ancestral territory. Their belief is that the soul dissolves again within the vital principle and fills out the child-spirits reserves.

The ceremonies finish when the deceased’s spirit has returned to his conception site, to the child-spirit state, to await a new incarnation.

These celebrations maintain the relationships between the ancestors and the living and allow the living to reshape and strengthen family relationships and social connections.

Aboriginal Dreams: pointillist painting

A « sorry camp » is established soon after a death announcement. For the occasion, they build a shelter at the periphery of the community. During a few weeks or months, the close relatives, men and women, have to live indoors inside that shelter. They cover the chest, the forehead, and the forearms with kaolin or white ochre, representing the color of mourning.

During the mourning period, they are supported and fed by other family members, the community, or visitors.

From inside that shelter, they receive condolences and gifts from the visitors.

The pain felt after the loss of a parent must be expressed and demonstrated intensely and collectively. That sorrow has to be shared.

Aboriginal men

The women are charged to practice the various purification rites, especially around the deceased’s house. The soil is swept with eucalyptus or acacia branches.

The purpose of this type of cleaning is to erase all the traces left on the ground by the defunct, because, in their belief, these traces represent a sort of self extension. Then his house is deserted for several weeks or months.

Sometimes, a few close relatives express their grief by inflicting themselves several bodily harm:

– the women hit their heads with the fists, with stones, with heavy and not sharp objects;

– the men pierce their thighs with a javelin.

– the very close family members cut their hair.

The relatives, men and women, inflict themselves some additional taboos for few weeks or months, including dietary prohibitions.

They perform a fumigation ceremony on the corpse, the relatives, and all the possessions belonging to the defunct.

His property is destroyed, burned or redistributed, mostly to the family members living inside another community. The purpose of this ritual is to allow the spirit to detach itself from the living world.

His name become a taboo and should no longer be pronounced during the whole period of the mourning, which can last up to two years. This practice applies to all people wearing the same name.

The places, the shops and the objects whose names are likely to recall the defunct’s name, are no longer pronounced.
Henceforth, they are all called « the unnamed”.

Aboriginal tomb

The corpse is returned to the maternal clan. Later, they paint it with the clan motifs, then place the body away, on a height and let it to decompose.

When the body’s decomposition is complete, they organize a second funeral ceremony in order to guide the soul towards its conception site.

During this ceremony the bones are placed in a repository (a hollow trunk, a bark cover or a tomb) under the supervision of the religious leaders, the family members and the allied clans.

The purpose of this last ritual is to guide the spirit on his final journey toward his conception site.

Aboriginal mural paintings reflecting their funeral rites and beliefs

Sources :

A. Morvan, Révélation des morts et création rituelle dans le nord-ouest australien, Conférence internationale UFSC Florianopolis, 2013

Sylvie Poirier, Mort et rites funéraires dans le désert occidental australien, Frontières. Vol. 29 No. 2, 2018

Myrna Tonkinson, Katie Glaskin, Victoria Burbank, Mortality, Mourning and Mortuary Practrices in Indigenous Australia, Routledge, 2017

Laurent Dousset, Barbara Glowczewski, Marie Salaün. Les sciences humaines et sociales dans le Pacifique Sud, Cahiers du Credo, 2014

Wikipedia, Balgo (Australie-Occidentale) (

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