: Orthodox Burial On Yolngu Land


Archpriest Nicholas Karipoff and Matushka Anna|9th November 2023

Landing in the village of Yinyikai. The coffin and luggage are being unloaded.

In early August this year (2023) George B.* called me from Darwin. On the 14th of July, he lost his wife, with whom he had lived for 35 years. For various reasons, the funeral was greatly delayed. When he contacted the local Greek church the priest Father Joel gave him my phone number. Fr. Joel, as a young man, attended our youth spiritual talks in Melbourne.

It was not easy for me to arrange time for a flight to Darwin at the last minute, though I could not refuse a person suffering such grief. Father Joel explained that he could conduct the service in English, but George really pined to hear his native words. We agreed that I would fly with my Matushka, who would help with singing and reading. We thought that we would have a day or two to see Darwin and its surrounds after the funeral service in the Serbian church.

Suddenly, the obligations of our involvement in this grieving family began to grow. First, George asked us to baptise his 15-year-old son. This had to be done before the funeral. Secondly, it turned out that after the funeral the body would not be interred in the local cemetery in Darwin, but a two-and-a-half-hour flight east of Darwin.

Here it is necessary to explain why such a change suddenly occurred. I cannot retell the whole long story of how George, his wife and son, leaving a prosperous city life, ended up living in the land of the Yolngu people since 2012. He learned their language, although most of them speak some English. This Indigenous Nation occupies a special reserve in the north-eastern corner of the Northern Territory with an area of ​​​​about 100 thousand square kilometers, i.e., an area a third larger than Tasmania. You can only enter there with a special permit, like a visa. Over years of visiting and living among the Yolngu, the family, especially the late Iraida*, became close to the Aboriginal people. She earned special love by caring for a respected elder until the latter’s death. That is why the Yolngu insisted that Iraida’s body must be given over to the land on which she served. They even offered to pay half the cost of transporting the body on an eight-seater plane.

And so, Matushka Anna and I took off late on the evening of Tuesday, 8 August, and landed in Darwin in the early hours of Wednesday morning (the feast of St. Panteleimon).  George and his son picked us up at a hotel near the airport. From there we immediately went to the funeral home to serve a panikhida for the deceased. George and his son then took us to a seaside restaurant near the center of Darwin to have lunch. There was an agreement with the Serbian priest Fr. Sasha, who sometimes flies from Perth to serve in a small traditional church in Darwin. Jordan’s* christening was scheduled for the same afternoon, and a funeral service was scheduled for Friday morning. The church was opened by one of the parishioners.

I warned George that I agreed to baptise his son on the condition that we then continue the catechism (study) by telephone. We had only an hour and a half before the christening to spare, during which I briefly told the young man about what baptism into Christ means. There was no one else in the church except the four of us, so Matushka Anna and I had to become the godparents of the young man Jordan.

On Thursday, August 10th we rested in another hotel near the sea until evening. George and his son spent the whole day doing various errands and shopping. Jordan’s mother was dressed in the gown in which he was baptised, and Matushka Anna gave her nice white head scarf. Late in the evening George and his son returned. After dinner, they unexpectedly announced that they would spend the night (prohibited!) on the floor of our room, because… It was a long way for them to go to spend the night, and in the morning a funeral service and flight were scheduled. It was rather awkward for us to spend the night with them in the same room and risk running into trouble with the hotel, but we had no choice.

In the morning we left without incident and held a funeral service in the Serbian church. Before the funeral service, Matushka Anna and I performed a lesser blessing of water to bring holy water with us. The undertakers took the coffin to the airport, and we followed them. For some reason, there was a big delay in departure: instead of 12.00 pm, we took off at 13.30 pm. Before takeoff, I sprinkled holy water on the plane. We loaded on the coffin and our belongings and sat down in the plane cabin, from which three seats were removed to place the coffin with the body.

The young man Jordan was clearly nervous before the flight. His excitement was transmitted to his father. The twin-engine plane swayed on takeoff and occasionally dropped. When he gained altitude, the flight was surprisingly smooth. However, both father and son were agitated. They considered that the pilot was inexperienced and that we were in danger. A quarter of an hour before landing, the pilot announced to us that the wind was blowing from the east, and the landing path in Mata Mata was north-south. Not only that, but it is designed for smaller aircraft and therefore 200-300 meters shorter than he would like. He landed on the east-west track near the village of Yinyikai. It must be said that the pilot landed very softly. He was probably pleased to unload us a long with the coffin and fly back to Darwin as soon as possible. This is because George began to sing loudly, repeating the same verse from a Russian song for about an hour before landing. As he later explained, by doing this he wanted to reassure his son and us. We weren’t worried at all, because… we had prayed and blessed the plane.

We landed on red soil forty kilometers from our destination. Matushka felt vague anxiety when the plane – our connection with civilization – disappeared. George ran to a village of five or six houses to look for a person who could take us to Mata Mata along a very primitive road. First a group of women came. I immediately noticed that they had mobile phones and asked in surprise: “Is there reception here?” They smiled: “No, these are satellite phones.” I thought: “Advanced people…” One of the women asked Matushka whom we brought in the coffin, and when she found out, she was shocked. Danish anthropologists, who fly in during the dry season to study the Yolngu, drove up to us in a large SUV. George enthusiastically began to persuade them to take us to Mata Mata, but they refused, citing fatigue from the long drive. Finally, a car arrived, which we filled to the brim. Only the driver Anthony and Matushka sat in the front seat normally. I was bent over next to the coffin, and there was a mass of things on the unfolded seats; strapped to the roof there was also a stack of things that George was transporting. He and his son were sitting on the edge of the open tailgate, meaning we could go no faster than 20 km per hour. Even at that speed, it was difficult for them to sit with their legs dangling. They asked driver to stop three times. As a result, it took two hours to drive those 40 km.

Upon arriving in the village of Mata Mata, we immediately realized that we would not return to Darwin in a day to catch our return flight to Melbourne. Matushka’s intuition was spot on! No one had started digging the grave yet… The people had not yet gathered for the funeral, and only one family was currently dwelling in one of five or six houses. Thank God that in this village there are two things that provide connection with the rest of the world. Nearby is the same landing strip on which we could not land, and near the path – “a miracle!” – a Telstra phone booth. Over the next 24 hours, I made a ton of calls to rearrange our flight to Melbourne and enlist the help of the clergy for the services of the beginning of the Dormition Lent, a funeral at the cathedral in Melbourne and to rearrange my lectures on hagiography, having agreed with Fr. Peter Hill.


Matushka Anna with Elder Doris in Nhulunbuy before returning to Darwin.

A few words about the village of Mata Mata. It is located on the northern coast of the Northern Territory. A little to the east the coast dips south, and the huge Gulf of Carpentaria opens up. To the north there are many islands. The large island of Inglis is a few kilometers offshore and dominates sea views. Local Aborigines travelled here from place to place in search of shellfish, mud crabs, and fish, which abound in the sea. During WWII, the military built a series of landing strips along the coast, apparently to protect against the Japanese. After the war, these strips were used to transport doctors and nurses to remote areas. The village has an outpatient clinic for medical workers to use, a small school building (recently renovated) and several houses built with separate rooms connected by a veranda. The bathroom block is located separately from the cabins. There are large water tanks in the village, where excellent clear water is pumped from a bore. Hot water is heated by solar power. At the entrance to the village, there is a fenced off solar farm that produces 40-50 kilowatts per hour. The nearest town – Nhulunbuy – is located at some 135 km along a dirt road. In the dry season the journey takes two and a half hours, but in the rainy season it is a dangerous journey through raging streams and can take six hours. Sometimes during the rainy season, several people charter a plane to fly twenty minutes to the shops in Nhulunbuy.

The lure of shops is generally a theme about the influence of civilization on the life of the Yolngu. They, unlike the Aborigines of the southern states, retain their oral traditions and rituals. But this takes place against the background of a rather large dependence on civilization. Firstly, they receive government benefits for minimal maintenance of government property in these villages. This is, of course, cheaper than if some government employees lived there permanently. Also, this is some kind of intermediate stage in the process of the Aborigines entering the life of the state. We witnessed how they enjoyed    visiting grocery stores and other stores in the city. They use high-end technology, amenities, household appliances, and listen to recordings of their own music, as well as western rock music. Through all this, there is a tension between their traditional culture and the influence of modern civilization.

But let’s return to our story.  George and his son immediately began setting up tents for us and for themselves. People slowly trickling in for the funeral did the same. We quickly realized why tents were needed. They provide protection from the midges that are rampant there. Even local residents set up tents inside (!) the premises. They are also not immune to midges. My bites were relatively painless, but poor Matushka was tortured. Three months have elapsed, and her allergic reaction from the insects has not yet completely abated.

Temperatures on the Northern Territory coast vary little. Every day the weather was sunny at 32-33 degrees. On the day of our arrival, we learned that the solar panel system had stopped working. One of the Aborigines said that in the morning he would go look for a diesel generator. We urgently needed to arrange cooling for the deceased’s body. It was clear that digging the grave would take more than one day. We were convinced of this when we went to the cemetery and saw the dry clay, which had to be chiseled away with a crowbar and a pick. They covered the coffin with a blanket and opened a window in one room for the night, when the temperature dropped to 18 degrees. In the morning the windows were closed, in the afternoon the air conditioner was installed and connected to the generator.

Before going to bed, we had a modest snack by the fire, which burned all night in the hope of driving away the midges. We went to bed in our tent. It got really cool at night and heavy dew fell. Our shoes behind the tent were completely wet.

The second day of our stay in the village was occupied with arranging a cooling device for the deceased, starting to dig a grave, and various practical matters. The air conditioning was quite powerful and kept the room temperature at 16 degrees. George, his son, and another local resident began to dig the grave. Things moved very slowly. They quickly got tired and changed. I decided to help them – more for inspiration. In the afternoon, visitors from other places, including Yinyikai, where we landed, began to appear. Of particular interest to us was an elder that flew in from Elcho Island. This large island (280 sq km) is home to approximately 3,000 Yolngu. She respectfully addressed me and asked us to pray in our own way at the coffin of the deceased. We were told that the Indigenous people could lament and wail very loudly, however they behaved with restraint. We felt that they were troubled by the death of the deceased, who was caring for the mother of the Elder, Doris. We served a lity. Before this, Doris placed a number of traditional handicrafts on and around the coffin. From that night until the day of the funeral, there was a queue of young people in the room with the deceased, who slept on the floor next to the coffin, as is customary among the Yolngu. (But more on that later).

From this evening, special Yolngu rituals began, consisting of short songs and dances to the accompaniment of a didgeridoo and percussion sticks. This happened two evenings in a row and on the morning of the funeral. One of the musicians sat next to me and explained what they were singing about. The essence of the songs and figurative dances was that the Yolngu, on behalf of the deceased, bid farewell to birds, animals, trees, fish, stones, and all nature. They informed everyone that the soul of the deceased had left the body, and the body would soon return to the earth. The Yolngu have a very strong connection to the land on which they live. I involuntarily remembered the “moist mother earth” of ancient Rus’. George warned me that the Yolngu don’t like to have their photographs taken, so I refrained. Only Doris permitted us to take a photo on our last day with the Yolngu.

On the second night, a young man who was sleeping next to the coffin, was woken by light in the corner of the room. He saw a pillar of light, which was filled with the outlines of the deceased’s body. He clearly saw her face turned towards him. She looked at him gratefully and smiled. The poor bloke got scared and fled!  In the morning he talked about what he saw.

The digging of the grave was progressing very slowly. I decided to tell the Aborigines that according to our customs, the body is supposed to be buried on the third day. I no longer counted how much had elapsed since her death, but from the moment when the body was brought here. I believed that their serious attitude to rituals would work. Indeed, they realized that they had to meet deadline in one more day. Work was in full swing. Everyone who could began to dig diligently. I was persuaded to abandon this matter, when I fell near the grave, due to the clumsy assistance of those present, who were helping me to climb out of the grave.  Instead of digging, I took up the construction of a grave marker cross. Woodworking tools and materials were in short supply. I found old boards that I sawed to size with a mediocre saw. There was no paint, so I used white clay, which the Yolngu use to paint their faces and bodies before dancing. Clay mixed with water made decent paint for the cross.

Finally, the time had come to bury the deceased. I agreed with the Yolngu that first they would hold their ceremonies, and then Matushka and I would perform the Orthodox rite. The coffin, covered with carpets, was taken by car to the cemetery, which is located behind the northern part of the village near the sea. On the morning of the funeral, we went to the neighboring small village of Gilkal. There is a large beach of white sand, which was collected to line the bottom of the grave. There seemed to be no one in the village at the time. It was not a permanent settlement.

White sand for the bottom of the grave from Gilkal Beach 

One of the very few local whites, married to a Yolngu woman, offered his truck to carry the coffin to the cemetery, but his offer was rejected. A young family man (Terence) washed and cleaned his pride and joy – a large white SUV. In his Toyota, they laid out the seats and covered everything with clean mats. The coffin was carried there in their arms, and the procession went to the cemetery. I made a hand censer from a mug. It contained a lot of coal and incense. The natives really liked this. Smoke is important in their rituals. They looked with satisfaction at my censer and sprinkler, made from a bunch of eucalyptus branches. Matushka carried a large bottle of holy water that we had brought from Darwin. As we had agreed in advance, the Yolngu first interred their sister Iraida in their own way with singing, music and dancing. Their dances have a considerable variety of movements, and they are different for men and women. The coffin was handed over to the men standing at the bottom of the grave. To do this, the grave was dug much larger so that there was room for them at the ends of the coffin. Interestingly, three young men several times lay down on the coffin, half-covered with earth, and turned in different directions. As one of the young Aborigines who had arrived straight to the burial explained to us, this depicts the exit of the soul from the body. The soul, according to their beliefs, flies away like a butterfly from a cocoon. I sprinkled the coffin generously, the cross when it was placed, and the entire grave with holy water. Then our large bottle of holy water disappeared. It turned out that a little girl was thirsty and grabbed it. It was hot in the cemetery. Before we noticed the bottle was gone, quite a few people had taken a sip from it. (Maybe they realized that this was special water and wanted to drink it). Matushka and I smiled to ourselves, thinking that maybe these people would someday become Orthodox. They watched our ceremony with great respect. They are all nominal Christians. Several missions are active in Nhulunbuy. Of course, the Western spirit is very different from the spirit of these people. In our worship, I think they felt something closer. In conversations with Elder Doris, although she is a Protestant, I felt a deep understanding of the Christian spirit.

The burial ended at sunset. Midges began to appear. Already there, at the Yolngu cemetery, several small fires were lit to drive away midges. There was little food left, so Doris baked dampers over the fire. We talked some more by the fire and went to our tents. It was decided to go by car to Nhulunbuy in the morning. We bought tickets for a scheduled flight to Darwin.

Having found ourselves in Mata Mata after various adventures, we did not immediately understand how we would return home. According to the plan, we were supposed to fly from the village in a 5-seater Cessna to Darwin. After the tense flight from Darwin to Mata Mata for George and Jordan, they decided to persuade one of the young Yolngu to take us to Darwin by car instead. Matushka and I were worried that this might further delay our return to Melbourne. Besides, driving on an unpaved road for two days and spending the night in the bush is a good adventure only for the young. Then I called (from the “magic” booth) our daughter Nina to find out whether there were regular flights from Nhulunbuy to Darwin. We immediately bought tickets and said that we would not go by car to Darwin. As it turned out this car trip to Darwin could not take place because someone else had died and a funeral was being planned. George then asked us to organize two more tickets for them through Nina.

We went to Nhulunbuy in two cars. The first was driven by Anthony, who drove us softly singing from Yinyikai to Mata Mata on the day of our flight from Darwin. Doris was sitting with him, as she was supposed to arrange a one-year visa in the city for George and his son. (We all received permission for two weeks – for the funeral). Terence was driving the four of us, along with his wife and youngest son. To say goodbye, we stopped at the Rainbow River, a few kilometers from the village. Once we got to the city and boarded the 100-seat plane, everything else went smoothly without much excitement or adventure. Before flying to Melbourne, we also managed to see the center of Darwin and the foreshore.

The Yolngu unobtrusively and reverently showed us respect, attention, and hospitality. On Sunday afternoon, two men went out on a motorboat and caught a sea turtle – their delicacy – to treat us. They prefer to eat it raw, but for us they roasted it over the fire. Its meat is quite rubbery, but very tasty. They love their green fat too. With some apprehension, we each ate a small piece of fat. We were also treated to fresh coconut straight from the palm tree, its delicious juice and pulp. For the Yolngu, the visit of an Orthodox priest and his wife was a unique experience, and they treated us and our spiritual culture with great respect. On the last evening around the fire, we were touched by the singing of farewell songs – for us. Apparently, as they discussed amongst each other, that since we became Jordan’s godparents, that means we are now Doris’s parents! We were given honorific names in the Yolngu language.

Another interesting fact is that they are very serious about ensuring that marriages do not result in incest, looking deeply into the kinship of the bride and groom, and ensuring that they are from different clans.

We returned to Melbourne the day before the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. For the feast homily, I shared our impressions of this trip and the shock that we experienced when leaving the plane along the ramp.  We were hit by a piercing cold wind – after eight days of hot sunny weather, and in the terminal, we were struck by the frantic hustle and bustle – after these not entirely easy, but calm days.

Civilization – once we had been separated from it – was perceived as a cacophony of chaotic energy. Since then, we have thought a lot about these people, who still carry within themselves the harmony of nature. We lament that the culture of chaos inevitably takes over them too. May the Lord, give the right spiritual strength and direction for them to resist this destructive process. This trip not only opened up a world previously unknown to us, but also helped us think about our life in a big city.

Sea turtle. Nearby is a large empty bottle, 30 cm long.


*These names have been changed for privacy reasons