Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Sorry business

Sorry business:
What is sorry business and what role does it play in Indigenous communities in Australia?

Overview edit

  • Firstly, let us acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, on which we study and teach, the Ngunnawal peoples of the Canberra region of Australia. The authors of this chapter would also like to acknowledge the Aboriginal elders' past, present, and emerging.
  • In relation to the field of psychology, it should be noted that historical injustices against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are embedded in Australian psychology.
  • An official apology recognising these injustices was released in 2017.

The end stage of life is a very sensitive and significant time for people and their loved ones. Death, a confronting certainty of life, varies in meaning across all cultures. To give the best care to all dying patients, it is important to understand that death means different things to different people.

The term "passing" is generally more accepted and sensitive terminology to use when discussing death or dying with Aboriginal people due to the spiritual belief around the life cycle (Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Health Branch Queensland Health (2011)).

Focus questions:

  • What is sorry business?
  • What cultural protocols and practises are associated with sorry business?
  • What is the role of sorry business in Indigenous Australian communities?
  • What are the relevant psychological perspectives?
  • What is the reality behind sorry business?

What is Sorry Business? edit

  • Sorry business or sorry, is an Aboriginal English term used by Indigenous Australians for a time of traditional rites and customs related to death (Masharbash, 2017).
  • The most common sorry business practices are associated with grief and funerals for the deceased.
  • This is summarised as an important period of mourning during which community members are required to attend funerals and engage in other cultural events, activities, or rituals.
  • A drawing by German explorer William Blandowski from 1857, showing a deceased Aboriginal person highlights the historical practice of sorry business - see Figure 1.
  • Although this is one of the first documented accounts, sorry business has existed in Aboriginal culture for centuries.
Figure 1. Sorry business is a long standing and significant cultural experience that is unique to Indigenous Australia.

Understanding and Defining Sorry Business edit

  • Sorry business has a long and fluid history due to the effects of colonisation, immigration and government policies in Australia (Carlson & Frazer, 2015).
  • Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures had well-established beliefs and practises that had been handed down through generations, prior to colonisation. There were hundreds of distinct traditional tribes in the country, each with its own language, customs, relationship to country, and beliefs. Several traditional groupings had characteristics, which reflected their intertribal connections.[factual?]
  • To simply define sorry business in terms of the pre-colonial constructs and the "traditional" practices associated with sorry business, imposes an understanding that does not map onto the contemporary reality of myriad practices across vastly different Aboriginal cultural groups. By maintaining an inclusive definition, which includes not only "traditional" practices, such as Sorry Camps (Musharbash, 2008), but also more recently emerging practices, such as church funerals, grave visits, and even public expressions of grief on social media, we avoid some of the problematic aspects of narrower definitions (Carlson & Frazer, 2015).
  • Importantly, customary practices differ across Aboriginal tribes
  • Many Aboriginal tribal groups share the belief that this life is only part of a longer journey. When a person passes away, the spirit leaves the body. The spirit must be sent along its journey; otherwise, it will stay and disturb the family.
  • The main purpose for sorry business is to[factual?];
    1. Send the deceased spirit into the next world.
    2. Identify the cause of death.

Aboriginal Cultural Protocols & Practices edit

  • These practices may be sacred in nature and therefore not discussed openly.[factual?]
  • The ceremonies around death are extremely important to Aboriginal peoples and take priority over all other activities (Maddocks & Rayner, 2003).[for example?]
  • Sorry business customs vary across tribes (Sullivan et al., 2003), however these are some broadly shared consistencies of the specific protocols and practices which assists with the journey of the spirit;[factual?]
  1. Several months and even years will pass before the deceased's name is spoken. This is to prevent the spirit from being kept back or brought back to this world.
  2. A smoking ceremony is performed. The smoking of the deceased's goods and home also aids in facilitating the spirit's journey.
  3. Some Aboriginal tribes also have methods for determining the cause of death. Typically, they are performed by Elders with the requisite cultural authority, and the underlying issues are of a spiritual aspect. The rituals resemble an autopsy of Western customs.
  4. Until smoking ceremony and inquiry are conducted, relatives and friends are often relocated from the deceased's residence. In other tribes, the family stays in camps that are removed from contemporary facilities and services.
  • In Aboriginal culture, it is disrespectful to speak or, in certain situations, write the deceased's name. Aboriginal people believe that when the name of a departed person is spoken, their spirit will return to this world. Images, video or the broadcasting of the deceased's voice may also contravene traditional protocols and cause significant offence.[factual?][for example?]
  • The time of passing is traumatic for the deceased's relatives and friends. In isolated and rural regions, the entire town will experience grief and mourning, and establishments may close temporarily out of respect for the deceased. This moment will initiate particular cultural procedures, necessitating sensitivity and comprehension.[factual?]
  • In addition to assisting the immediate bereaved family, extended family and relatives are responsible for feeding, transporting, and housing mourners. In order for the bereaved family to have the time to pay respects to the departed, such assistance requires the collaboration of extended family and friends to share the load.[factual?]
  • In some places the smoking ceremony is accompanied by or replaced by sweeping with branches (Wake et al., 1999).

The Role of Sorry Business in Indigenous Communities edit

[Provide more detail]

Farewell edit

  • Primarily, Sorry business is used in order to facilitate the departure of the deceased person's spirit from the living world and move into the next life (Carlson & Frazer, 2015).
  • According to the research of Broome (1982), Aboriginal cultures maintain that without proper ceremonies the deceased's spirit cannot take its place in the afterlife but will become caught between death and future life.

Greif & Mourning edit

  • For First Nations people, overcoming grief is a unique and complex process.[factual?]
  • Sorry business is an important time for Aboriginal communities to mourn and grieve in a way that is culturally accepted and meaningful. [factual?]
  • Due to the large health disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, the frequency of post-death practices are at an all time high in Aboriginal communities.[factual?]
    • Anderson et al. (2012) found that Aboriginal people attend significantly more funerals than non-Aboriginal people. They discovered that Aboriginal people were eight times more likely to have attended a funeral in the two previous years.
  • A paramount feature of sorry business is providing support to those in the community who are most affected by the passing of a loved one (Musharbash, 2017).

Relevant Psychological Theory edit

“Bereavement refers to the loss of a loved one by death, and grief refers to the distress resulting from bereavement” (Genevro et al., 2004)

Bereavement theory edit

  • Mourning and Melancholia (1917/1957) by Sigmund Freud was the first significant theoretical contribution to grief (Hall, 2014).
    • His theoretical basis included a system for dissolving the links between the surviving and the deceased which influenced this field profoundly (Hall, 2014).
  • Bereavement theory presents a process of grief in which people move through stages as quickly as possible to return to 'normal' functioning. This theory was further developed to present these stages as more predictable and identifiable, in which people engage in particular behaviours and thought processes (Kübler-Ross, 1969; Bowlby, 1980; Parkes & Weiss, 1983).
  • Recent theorists have discarded previous bereavement models due to lack of empirical evidence and rigid structure of the model. Contemporary theorists have built upon the tenets of previous models to identify distinct patterns and relationships that exist within the complex and unique mourning process.
  • This new wave of bereavement models based on the idiosyncratic nature of bereaving individuals allows for greater cross-cultural examinations of bereavement.
    • The Dual-Process Model of Stroebe and Schut (1999) and the Task-Based Model created by Worden (2008) are two of the most comprehensive and significant modern grieving theories. These approaches benefit both counsellors and clients by providing intervention frameworks and enhancing clients' self-awareness and self-efficacy
  • A core consideration of these new models allows for unique reactions, needs and challenges as individuals and their families cope with loss. Usage of the stage models of bereavement theory can lead to a failure of empathy, where there is a deficit in listening to and addressing the needs of bereaved people.[factual?]
  • Literature in Bereavement theory and other theories relating to grief are widely derived from a western and individualistic perspectives.
    • Meaning that applying bereavement cross-culturally is somewhat difficult and the literature is underdeveloped.

The Reality of Sorry Business edit

[Provide more detail]

Susceptibility edit

  • Contemporary literature consistently highlights the disparities Aboriginal people face in health, education and justice.
  • High rates of mortality perpetuate the significance of sorry business in the Aboriginal community.
  • According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2010, Aboriginal males live for an average 11.5 fewer years than non Aboriginal males (67.2 years and 78.7 years); the difference is 9.7 years for females (72.9 years and 82.6 years).[Use the latest statistics]
  • Suicides are likewise more commonplace, approximately 40 percent higher than the rate of non-Aboriginal suicide (Carlson, 2014). A devastating statistic as suicide was an unknown concept in Aboriginal culture prior to colonisation (Carlson & Frazer, 2015).

Changing Culture edit

  • As a result of colonisation and the reality of a changing world, the traditions of Aboriginal culture continue to survive and adapt in its unique way.
    • Examples of this change include the growing usage of social media in sorry business.
  • When a bereavement occurs, social media provides Aboriginal people with new alternatives for openly expressing and sharing their grief with family, extended social networks, and those separated by distance in particular (Carlson & Frazer, 2015).

Support edit

  • An understanding of culturally safe practices in workplaces and communities would allow for respect and support of Aboriginal people attending sorry business
  • In order to make arrangements for the practice of unique cultural rites, it is imperative to be aware of the specific needs of each Aboriginal person with regard to their body, home, and possessions following their passing (Maddocks & Rayner, 2003).[Consider discussing entitlement to cultural leave]
  • Many Aboriginal communities place a great value on the presence of relatives or community members at funeral. Hence, it is essential to provide as much warning as possible about the health of a dying Aboriginal patient to all relevant members of the tribal group so that plans may be made for their attendance (Sullivan et al., 2003).
  • Other rituals, such as singing by members of the cultural group at the time of death, must also be understood and accommodated in hospitals and nursing homes where Aboriginal people pass away (Maddocks & Rayner, 2003).

Quiz edit

1 What is another word used for death in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?:


2 What are three factors that are significant in altering the practice of Sorry Business?:

Incarceration, Poverty & Education
Colonisation, Immigration & Government Policies
Colonisation, High Mortality & Incarceration

3 What are the main purposes of Sorry Business?

Mourning & Grieving
Cause of Death & Farewell into the next life
Celebration & Kinship

4 What are the two recent models of Bereavement theory?

Freuds[grammar?] Mourning and Melancholia Model &
Dual-Process Model of Stroebe and Schut (1999) & the Task-Based Model created by Worden (2008)

5 "Aboriginal people have a significantly higher life expectancy when compared to other Australians"


6 "Sorry business used to be a tradition that was not practiced as frequent as it is in Aboriginal communities today"


Conclusion edit

  • Sorry business is unique and has differing processes across Aboriginal tribes, families and individuals
  • Traditional practices of sorry business are widely practiced but differ according to tribes, geographical location and family. However these traditions usually consist of a smoking ceremony, determining the cause of death from a spiritual perspective and allowing the deceased spirit to move into the next life. Multiple protocols must be followed to ensure this process is done according to cultural expectations.
  • The prevalence of sorry business for the Aboriginal community is significant due to the high rates of mortality and the cultural customs associated with the passing of an Aboriginal person.
  • Literature in this domain is small, therefore greater research is needed to understand the process of bereavement which occurs in Aboriginal culture.
  • Achieving a greater understanding is also in part determined by the amount of sacred and traditional knowledge that Aboriginal people are willing to share with non-indigenous Australians.
  • Bereavement theory is an attempt at understanding the nature of grief at a conceptual level. Additional research in this field and culturally appropriate models can potentially aid healthcare and the understanding of the complex issues that Aboriginal Australians face.

See also edit


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

References edit

Anderson, M., Bilney, J., Bycroft, N., CockatooCollins, D., Creighton, G., Else, J., . . . Moller, J. (2012). Closing the gap: Support for Indigenous loss. Australian Nursing Journal, 19(10), 24–27.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). (2010). Measures of Australia’s progress 2010 (cat. no.1370.0). Canberra, Australia: ABS.

Bowlby, J. (1998). Attachment and Loss: Sadness and Depression. Loss (No. 3). Random House.

Broome, R. (1982). *Aboriginal Australians* (p. 161). Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Carlson, B. (2014). Indigenous Australia’s diverse memorialisation of the dead. Retrieved from

Carlson, B., & Frazer, R. (2015). “It's like going to a cemetery and lighting a candle”: aboriginal australians, sorry business and social media. alternative: an international journal of indigenous peoples, 11(3), 211–224.

Cohen, M., Dwyer, P., & Ginters, L. (2008). Performing ‘sorry business’: Reconciliation and redressive action. victor turner and contemporary cultural performance, 76–93.

Genevro, J. L., Marshall, T., Miller, T., & Center for the Advancement of Health (2004). Report on bereavement and grief research. Death studies, 28(6), 491–575.

Glaskin, K. (Ed.). (2008). Mortality, mourning and mortuary practices in Indigenous Australia. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Hall, C. (2014). Bereavement theory: Recent developments in our understanding of grief and bereavement. Bereavement Care, 33(1), 7–12.

Kübler-Ross, E. (1973). On death and dying. Routledge.

Maddocks, I., & Rayner, R. G. (2003). Issues in palliative care for Indigenous communities. Medical Journal of Australia, 179, S17-S19.

Musharbash, Y. (2008). Yuendumu Everyday: Contemporary life in remote Aboriginal Australia. Aboriginal Studies Press.

Musharbash, Y. (2017). ‘Sorry business is Yapa Way’: Warlpiri mortuary rituals as embodied practice. In *Mortality, mourning and mortuary practices in Indigenous Australia* (pp. 43-58). Routledge.

Parkes, C. M., & Weiss, R. S. (1983). Recovery from Bereav. Basic Books.

Schut, M. S. H. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Rationale and description. *Death studies*, *23*(3), 197-224.

Sullivan, K., Johnston, L., Colyer, C., Beale, J., Willis, J., Harrison, J., & Welsh, K. (2003). National indigenous palliative care needs study. *Canberra, The National Palliative Care Program*.

Wake, D.,Dineen, J., & Martin, K. (1999). Yarlparu: on sorrow and grief.[Talking to the families of dying Aboriginal people]. Australian Nursing Journal: ANJ, The, 6(9), 16-18.

Worden JW (2008). Grief counseling and grief therapy: a handbook for the mental health practitioner (4th ed.). New York: Springer.

External links edit

Death and sorry business (

What is Sorry Business? | National Reconciliation Week With Evolve - (YouTube) Sorry business