Australian Funerals: Traditions, Etiquette & What to Expect

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Across the globe, you’ll find unique funeral traditions based on local cultures, customs, and history. Australian funeral traditions are similar to North American traditions, but there are some key differences that are worth knowing.

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While many have some idea of what to expect at a funeral, it’s not always the same based on the region of the world. Within Australia, you’ll find different cultures and groups that might have even more variation amongst funeral traditions. 

In this guide, we’ll share everything you need to know about Australian funerals, traditions, etiquette, and what to expect. Whether you’re attending a funeral in Australia or for an Australian in another country, it’s always smart to be culturally sensitive. 

How Do Funerals Work in Australia?

Australian funerals work in the same way as most American funerals. They depend on the specific individual’s religion, personal wishes, and family plans. If you’ve been to a funeral in North America, you can expect a similar funeral service with a few exceptions. 

The typical order of service

While each family is free to choose their own order of service, you’ll typically see Australian funeral services adhering to the following order. Again, this varies depending on the specific religion and culture.

  • Prelude: The prelude or funeral procession is the opening part of each funeral. The family might request specific funeral songs depending on their wishes. 
  • Introduction: A celebrant or religious leader welcomes guests to the funeral. 
  • Opening readings: To start the funeral, there will be a selection of funeral readings. These are typically religious prayers, but they can also be passages from literature or other special readings. 
  • Obituary: A close family member reads the deceased person’s obituary. 
  • Eulogies: Guests are invited to share eulogies and final words of farewell about the deceased. 
  • Closing: In closing, the celebrant or officiant will read final prayers, play a song, or invite guests to join the family for a repast or graveside service. 
  • Graveside service: Though optional, many families also gather at the graveside to watch the body be lowered into the final resting place. There might be an additional service by the grave. 
  • Repast: Most families choose to have some form of a repast or informal reception after the funeral. This is a chance for the family to receive support and condolences. 

Different religions

Like North America, Australia has a diverse variety of religions. This means you might see some variation in funeral and end-of-life customs. The most common religions and belief systems in Australia are:

  • Christianity (52%)
  • Agnostic or atheist (29%)
  • Islam (2.6%)
  • Buddhism (2.4%)
  • Hinduism (1.8%)
  • Judaism (0.39%)

Within these religions, there are specific customs families follow to care for and honor the dead. That being said, in modern times, most families will choose to follow the order of service seen above with minor variations. 

Aboriginal funeral traditions

When discussing Australian funerals, it’s important to also recognize the Aboriginal culture. The Aboriginal people are a cultural group indigenous to Australia, and they’ve kept a strong grip on their burial and funeral customs for hundreds of years. 

Unlike Western traditions, Aboriginal customs center around spirituality after death. After someone dies, the family holds a smoking ceremony. This is a traditional ritual that’s designed to drive away the deceased’s spirit by releasing smoke in the home of the deceased. 

After this first ceremony, there is a death ceremony. The body stays inside the home, and friends and family celebrate the life of the deceased during this time. Instead of encasing the body in a tomb or casket, it’s placed on a platform where it decomposes in the air. 

While this might sound morbid to outsiders, the Australian Aboriginal people do not shy away from death. It’s simply a part of life, though they do practice remembrance in their own way.

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Australian Burial and Remembrance Customs

Like in other parts of the world, it’s important for Australians to honor and remember those they’ve lost. Their burial customs, outside of Aboriginal cultures, follow many of the western traditions most are already familiar with. 

Cremation vs. burial

While cremation is on the rise, there’s still an even split between cremation and burials in Australia. Around 50% of people choose cremation vs. burials, and both options are widely accepted. 

The decision between cremation or burial depends on the family’s wishes and budget. Cremation is generally more affordable and accessible, so it’s easy to see why these numbers are rising amongst Aussies. 

In addition, more Australians are looking for green burial options. Recently, a number of green funeral homes appeared to offer the option of a green burial. This is when the body is returned to earth with a natural shroud or biodegradable casket. There are no chemicals or extra steps used during the burial. It’s a way to return to the earth naturally. 

Remembering and mourning the deceased

For most Australians, it’s important to incorporate remembrance of the dead into other events. For example, it’s common to hold memorials on the anniversary of someone’s death or to have a ceremony in their honor. There are a number of memorial and remembrance products used in all walks of life, such as memorial jewelry or memorial diamonds.

Remembrance is especially unique in Aboriginal culture. According to Aboriginal law, it’s not appropriate to depict the dead or voice their names. This was supposedly a way to disturb their spirit, and these strict laws are still followed today.

To honor deceased loved ones, many Aboriginal families use substitute names during the bereavement period. In these cultures, it’s common for grieving to last days or even weeks.

Australian Funeral Etiquette

In Australia, it’s important to follow proper funeral etiquette to offer your condolences to the bereaved family. To avoid accidentally offending anyone, follow these etiquette points below. 

Mood

Australian funerals are typically somber. This is a time for quiet sympathy and reflection. While it’s appropriate to cry quietly depending on your relationship with the deceased, over-the-top displays of emotion aren’t common. 

There are times when you might attend a more lively funeral or memorial service. These are often celebrations of life, and they might feel more like a party than a funeral. 

Attire

Like in North America, it’s appropriate to wear black or dark clothing to the funeral. This is especially true amongst older generations. As funerals become more modern, some families are moving away from this tradition. 

Still, it’s a good idea to dress conservatively for the funeral unless instructed otherwise. You should wear simple clothing that doesn’t attract attention. It should be something you’d be comfortable wearing to church or another religious function, even if it’s not a religious funeral. 

Condolences and gifts

While not required, it’s common to send a condolence gift to the family to show your support. The most common choice is flowers. You can send flowers directly to the family or the funeral home. 

Other condolence gift ideas are to send a meal, baked goods, charitable donations, or family photos. It’s important to be there for those in your life when they need it most. A condolence gift doesn’t have to be expensive to be meaningful. 

Australian Funerals and Remembrance

The average Australian funeral is very similar to other western traditions regardless of religion. The exception to this is amongst Aboriginal groups where there are unique ways to honor the dead. Regardless of the type of funeral you’re invited to, it’s understandable to want to know what the experience will be like. 

The more we familiarize ourselves with funerals around the globe, the better we understand each other. There is so much we can learn about different cultures and traditions by how they honor the dead. Even those with cultures far different from our own have so much to teach us. So how do you honor the dead where you live, and what’s meaningful to you?


Sources:
  1. “Disposing of the dead - Cremation.” Australian Museum. 22 November 2018. Australian.museum.
  2. “Diversity of Religion and Spiritual Beliefs.” Racism No Way: Anti-Racism Education for Australian Schools. RacismNoWay.com.au
  3. Korff, Jens. “Mourning an Aboriginal death.” Creative Spirits. 17 July 2020. CreativeSpirits.info
  4. Pianin, Jen. “Aboriginal Mortuary Rituals.” Anthropological Perspectives on Death. 18 April 2017. Scholarblogs.emory.edu

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