11 Passing of an Elder or Valued Person

Sorry Business

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have numerous customary practices and protocols when a family member or a member of their community passes. The traditional ceremonies and practices followed during these times of mourning are known as ‘Sorry Business’. These customs differ between and among individual language groups and Sorry Business is a time that must be approached with great respect and understanding. Cultural protocols during these times have many intricacies and there may be several duties which a staff or student is responsible to undertake throughout the bereavement period. These are cultural obligations which must always be prioritised over workplace commitments.

It is important to note that bonds and relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples transcend immediate family and direct blood relations. Aboriginal and or Torres Strait Islander people value and view themselves as members of their community rather than as individuals; hence, when bereavement is experienced within a family, there is shared mourning and feelings of grief throughout the entire community. Family, in this context, is important to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and should be met with cultural sensitivity and respect.

The passing of Elders, specifically, is highly significant. Losing an Elder not only means losing a member of a community, but also the loss of all of the knowledge that person once held. Deep knowledge of cultural history, practices, and lore is also lost when an Elder passes.

Example of Sorry Business Protocols

When there has been a death in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, it is not unusual for whole communities to ‘shut down’. When this happens, protocol will call for the cancellation of planned meetings and any other activities. In some communities, people from outside of the community such as government and non-government organisations who want to do business there are not allowed to enter the community. Any organisation wanting to do business in the community should be respectful during the grieving period and wait until they have been told it is okay to enter again.

Some additional customs which apply to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples during the mourning period can include (but are not limited to):

  • restriction on the participation of non-Sorry Business related activities or events
  • families living in the same house for extended periods of time
  • duties to care for specific members of family or community
  • being responsible, as an in-law, for the organisation of some ceremonies
  • obligations in undertaking traditional hunting practices (for extended periods of time)
  • rehearsal of traditional songs and dances, for performance within ceremonies.

Further protocols which must be followed by all can include (but are not limited to):

  • not using the given names of a deceased person (as this may call one’s spirit back before they are able to rest)
  • not using the images or voices of a deceased person.

These protocols are often followed by media outlets. You may have seen a warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that a program contains images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Or, you may see a statement advising that the deceased person’s name has been shortened or changed for cultural reasons. Sometimes, the family will give permission for the person’s name to be used.

It is respectful for institutions to fly the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander flags at half-mast when an Elder or Valued person passes.

Time Away from Work or School

Students and workers may be required to return to their home communities for the undertaking of ceremonies upon the passing of a family member. Physically being with family and community is of utmost priority. Certain cultural obligations will often dictate the amount of time away from work and/or study which a student or worker may require. It is important to accommodate for extended periods of leave and time away from work and/or studies so that Sorry Business can occur without further distress.

A funeral for someone who has recently passed might not happen immediately due to challenges organising the ceremony. It can take days, weeks, or even months before a funeral takes place. During this time, other ceremonial events may take place, and people with roles within the family/community will continue to follow bereavement protocols.

Continued Cultural Obligations After the Funeral

Cultural obligations do not cease once the burial of the deceased person has taken place. Some obligations require Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to take on the responsibility of looking after family members of the deceased and to remain within their community. Taking on such responsibilities may interrupt the capacity of the bereaved person to work or study.

Tombstone Unveilings (Torres Strait Islander Cultures)

In Torres Strait Islander cultures, the unveiling of a person’s headstone is a ceremonial practice which is just as culturally significant and involved as the funeral service. Tombstone/headstone unveling ceremonies occur within one to five years of a person’s passing, after the initial burial.

Tombstone unveilings are large ceremonies which may span many weeks of preparation before the ceremony is held. To be able to properly commemorate and celebrate a person’s life after an untimely passing requires much planning time, as the ceremony may involve the entire community.

Staff and students are eligible to take extended leave for Sorry Business ceremony and tombstone unveilings.

Example of Appropriate Communication

It is important to maintain respect throughout all communications during the mourning period and to approach these situations with an open mind and heart. Listening and learning during these situations is important for all, as it will develop the cultural awareness of the University. If you inadvertently cause offence, apologise, and be willing to learn. Below is an example and notes to help supervisors, colleagues and students approach workers or students going through Sorry Business in a study or workplace setting with cultural sensitivity.

Reach out

Send a message to the individual. Maintaining culturally sensitive communications with colleagues/students is important throughout the mourning process.

Say “I am deeply sorry for your loss.”


Allow time for a reply. The physical and emotional labours of Sorry Business will often lead to time away from technology as the focus shifts towards the person’s cultural obligations.


If appropriate, you may wish to ask the person, their family, or an Indigenous Liaison Officer who knows the individual:

“Are there any cultural protocols you need me to follow?”

This may also be an appropriate time to receive clarity about the person’s cultural commitments: “Do you know how much time you  might need to be away?” and “Are there any obligations which might affect your capacity to return to your role?”

Notes regarding Sorry Business

  • Requesting a death certificate immediately may cause further emotional distress. Where possible, give the person time to provide this.
  • Accommodating for additional time off is always valued.
  • For Torres Strait Islander workers and students, provide additional time off for Tombstone Unveilings.
  • Maintain communication with your colleague or student and meet them with cultural sensitivity.
  • Explain the significance of Sorry Business respectfully to other colleagues and students to help spread cultural awareness.


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The Language of Relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Copyright © 2023 by Tracey Bunda; Lynnell Angus; Sybilla Wilson; Mia Strasek-Barker; Kealey Griffiths; Lucas Schober; Thomas Scanlan; Keiko Mishiro; Vanessa Eagles; and Laura Deane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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