No Yolngu funeral is a perfunctory affair. Despite the fact that most Yolngu choose ‘Uniting Church’ over ‘Traditional beliefs’ in response to the census question on religion, funerals are a major focus of a rich ceremonial system founded on traditional beliefs. In the pre-mission past, primary burial—interment or placement on a platform—was a swift affair. The more major ceremony after death was secondary reburial when the bones were retrieved and, after a period of being carried around by close relatives in a bark container, were placed in a hollow-log coffin. These secondary ceremonies were often much longer than the first, involved regional gatherings and took place at times of year when resources permitted the concentration of large numbers of people. They took place only after negotiations among all the relevant kin about the form of the ceremony and the final placement of the hollow-log coffin.
Missionisation, beginning in the mid 1930s, led to the discontinuation of secondary reburial, so that the ceremonial focus began to move to the primary burial. These ceremonies began to be more lengthy affairs, although still not overly so until the introduction of a new technology—the portable morgue. Beginning in the mid 1970s, Yolngu funerals have become exponentially longer and more elaborate affairs. Politics surrounding control of the ceremony and the final resting place of the deceased have intensified, in part because, unlike the organisation of a secondary reburial in the past, negotiations are contingent on the circumstances and time of the death and are compressed in time. Funerals have become the site of community politics par excellence.
The funeral of an important and senior person can attract up to 400 people from a wide region, and take several months. Although the 400 will not be present all of that time, funerals are a major cause of continual intra-regional mobility on a massive scale. In some years—and 2006 was a case in point—funerals are a continual presence. There might be several going on at the same time, although one is often delayed until after another is finished so that they follow one another almost without pause.
It is logistically impossible and inappropriate to undertake an enumeration at a place where a funeral is happening. During the course of a funeral, close relatives of the deceased person will camp at the site of the funeral for the duration. Others will come and go, usually making sure that they attend certain important points of the ceremony, particularly the last few days leading up to the burial itself. It is fair to say that the organisation of and attendance at funerals takes precedence over everything else, particularly for senior ceremonial leaders and certain categories of relatives of the deceased person.