Funerals have been a part of human culture for millennia, and the history of funerals in Australia is no different. From ancient indigenous traditions to modern funeral practices, the way that Australians say goodbye to their loved ones has changed and evolved over time.
Indigenous Australian practices.
Indigenous Australians have their own unique funeral traditions. In many Indigenous communities, the deceased would be cremated and their ashes would be placed in a tree or other natural feature. This was seen as a way to return the person's spirit to the land and to honour their connection to the natural world.
1700’s and 1800’s.
The first recorded funeral in Australia took place in 1788, when the British established a settlement in Sydney. At that time, funerals were very similar to those in the United Kingdom and based around Christian religion, with the body being placed in a coffin and buried in a cemetery.
Rites and rituals took place in the home, surrounded by family. Locks of hair, photographs, jewellery and keepsakes were kept as important mementos. There was a huge importance of memory and memorialisation, giving obituaries and gravesites a strong significance. Visiting the grave was an important part of grieving. As time went on, religion was less prominent in Australia, particularly after the 1870s and was only strengthened again later with the influx of Orthodox and Catholic immigrants.
Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney has had a historic and cultural impact on funeral practices to this day. During these times there was the concept of “beauty in death”. When Rookwood Cemetery was established there was an emphasis that the grounds were a relaxing and enjoyable place to be visited regularly by the public.
There were many mourning rituals that took place during this time period and much emphasis placed on flowers at the funeral and quotes on elaborate headstones. There were unguarded expressions of grief, mourning clothing was worn, open and there was celebration and viewing of the body. Embalming started to grow in this time as a way of preserving the ‘beauty’ of the person’s body.
As Australia became more diverse, other cultures brought their own funeral traditions with them. For example, the Chinese community in Australia has a tradition of burning incense and paper money to honour the deceased.
Impact of the World Wars and Great Depression.
WWI had a huge impact on the perception and rites around funerals. So many Australians died overseas and relatives were rarely able to view their bodies or visit their graves. This stripped the beauty of death away and it was consequently viewed in a negative light.
People began to question burials, and crematoriums began popping up after WWI, with the first also being at Rookwood Cemetery.
After the Great Depression and World War II, life expectancy increased, death became taboo, and death was institutionalised. Dying in hospitals became commonplace, when previously dying at home was the norm. Mourning also became less visible, with less of a focus on grief and more on honouring the deceased.
Our society became obsessed with ageing and doing everything to live longer. Funeral homes whisked the dead off and away from home. Death became so far removed from our daily lives, with less people seeing or interacting with the body.
The rise of cremation.
The 1990's saw one of the biggest changes in the funeral industry in Australia. Cremation passed burial as the preferred and more popular form of body disposal. It was cheaper, secular, simple and even supported by the Catholic Church. Now, cremation accounts for approximately 70% of all methods.
Today, funerals in Australia are generally similar to those in other Western countries. They can be held in a church, a funeral home, or a crematorium, and can be either religious or secular in nature. Burial and cremation are the two most popular options, and there are a range of options available for those who want to personalise their loved one's final farewell.
In conclusion, the history of funerals in Australia reflects the cultures and traditions of our country. From indigenous practices to modern funeral homes and cremation, the way that Australians say goodbye to their loved ones has evolved over time, but the underlying desire to honour and remember our loved ones remains the same.