The Lorrkkon or bone pole coffin ceremony was the final ceremony in a sequence of mortuary rituals celebrated by the people of Arnhem Land. This ceremony involves the placing of the deceased’s bones into a hollow log which was decorated with painted clan designs and ceremonially placed into the ground where it remained until it slowly decayed over many years.
The log is made from a termite hollowed Stringybark tree (Eucalyptus tetradonta) and is decorated with totemic emblems. The western Arnhem Land version of the Lorrkkon ceremony involves the singing of sacred songs to the accompaniment of karlikarli, a pair of sacred boomerangs used as rhythm instruments. During the final evening of the ceremony, dancers decorate themselves with kapok down, or today, cotton wool and conduct much of the final segments of the ceremony in the secrecy of a restricted mens’ camp. The complete ceremony may stretch over a period of two weeks, but on the last night the bones of the deceased, which have been kept in a bark container or today wrapped in cloth and kept in a suitcase are taken out, are painted with red ochre and placed inside the hollow log. This ceremony may take place many years after the person has died.
At first light on the final morning of the Lorrkkon ceremony, the men appear, coming out of their secret bush camp carrying the pole towards the women’s camp. The two groups call to each other using distinct ceremonial calls. The women have prepared a hole for the pole to be placed into and when it is stood upright, women in particular kinship relationships to the deceased dance around the pole in a jumping/shuffling motion. The Lorrkkon is then often covered with a tarpaulin and left to slowly decay.
There are two styles of Lorrkkon ceremonies, distinct in their use of different instruments. In the western style, the ceremonial singing is accompanied by karlikarli, sacred boomerangs used as rhythm instruments. The singing in the bungkurl style Lárrkkan ceremony of Eastern and Central Arnhem Land people is accompanied by the music of didjeridus and clapsticks. This style of ceremony was documented at Gupanga, east of Maningrida, in the award-winning film Waiting for Harry.
John Mawurndjul’s magnificent re-interpretation of a lorrkkon features as part of the interior architecture of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Other celebrated artists of this medium are Ivan Namirrkki, who was a finalist in the Clemenger Awards, Kay Lindjuwanga, Samuel Namundjdja, Laurie Marbaduk, Fiona Jin-majinggal and Paul Nabulumo.