Page:Aboriginesofvictoria01.djvu/183

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101
DEATH, AND BURIAL OF THE DEAD.

The ground around the body is now cleared of grass, which is burnt; and it is then carefully swept, so that the deceased lies in the centre of a circular piece of dry earth, a few feet in diameter. On the ground near the body is placed the tomahawk of the dead man, and his nearest of kin stands within or near the margin of the circle. The male mourners then assemble. The first who arrives seizes the tomahawk and endeavours to maim himself with it, aiming a blow usually at the head; but the relative of the deceased whose duty it is to see that all rites are fulfilled wrenches it from him, and prevents him from inflicting any deadly hurt; and the mourner then quietly seats himself at a distance of three or four or five feet from the corpse. Other mourners follow in like manner, performing the same ceremony, and with the same result. None is suffered by the attendant to maim himself.

Very soon a circle is thus formed on the marge of the cleared space within which the body lies; and if the deceased has made himself remarkable by his deeds or his wisdom during life, and if his tribe is large, two, three, or four circles of male mourners assemble on such occasions.

This ceremonial, simple as it is, strikes one with a kind of awe, and begets respect for this people, when seen for the first time in the glade of a dense forest. The mourners daubed with clay, their faces changed and made strangely to resemble one another by the rings around their eyes, which they have carefully painted with white earth; their bent figures, and their looks cast to the ground; the appearance of order and decency which they exhibit—make one regard this rite as scarcely less solemn than that which is performed when a great warrior of our own people is committed to his last resting-place.

The women are not suffered to come nigh the corpse at this stage of the ceremonial. As soon as it is known that death has stricken their companion, they muffle the dogs in opossum rugs, and collect in groups beside the trees adjacent to the spot where the body lies. They approach not nearer than fifty or sixty or one hundred yards. They give utterance to wild lamentations. They cry piteously, and make heard the sounds of their sorrow far beyond the space occupied by the mourners. There are, however, no screams or hideous outcries. We hear the tones of distress. Their notes are plaintive. They swell, and fall, and grow faint, and rise again. Theirs is truly the wail of bereaved creatures, and there is nothing vulgar in the demonstration, because in their wildest grief and sorrow there is the natural and not the affected outpouring of the heart's misery and desolation. The nearest group, generally composed of three women, leads and directs the sounds of lamentation; the next responds in fainter and yet wilder notes; and, if the tribe is numerous, the dirge is continued far into the forest.

When the body has lain about half an hour, the doctor, or sorcerer, or priest approaches, and he provides each of the inner circle of mourners with a stick about six inches in length. The mourners begin to turn up the earth of the cleared space with the sticks, making trenches about two inches in depth and three inches in width, each trench formed by one mourner meeting that formed by his neighbour—so that a circular trench is quickly excavated around the body.