For Torajans tribe in Indonesia, the death of the body isn’t the abrupt, final, severing event of the West. Instead, death is just one step in a long, gradually unfolding process. Late loved ones are tended at home for weeks, months, or even years after death.
During their lives, the Torajans work extremely hard to accumulate wealth. But unlike other societies, the Torajans do not save their money to give themselves a good life, rather they save for a good send-off in death. In fact, it is the extravagance of the funeral, not the wedding, which marks a family’s status.
Funeral ceremonies are incredibly important to the Torajans and are often held weeks, months, or even years after the death of a person to give the family of the deceased time to raise enough money for expenses – a body is not buried until the funds have been raised.
They use the coating of a chemical solution called formalin, which is a mixture of formaldehyde and water to preserve the flesh and skin from decaying, which usually begins within days of death. Lots of dried plants are stored beside the bodies to mask the smell.
Many people go deeply into debt in order to hold a funeral ceremony and it is not uncommon for a young man, afraid of being burdened by debt, to postpone or cancel his marriage if a grandparent of the girl he loves is old enough to die soon. The funerals are raucous affairs involving the whole village and traditionally last for days or even weeks. Specifically, a funeral reinforces the eternal bond between the living and the dead.
Funerals are often delayed as long as necessary to gather far-flung relatives. The grandest funeral ceremonies are week-long events drawing Torajans home in a vast reverse diaspora from wherever in the world they may be. When a brigade of a hundred or more motorcycles and cars rips through town accompanying a corpse home from far away, traffic stops in a manner that not even an ambulance or a police officer can command. Here, death trumps life.
For the community, a well-preserved body brings good fortune so families go to great lengths to ensure those who have died remain in the best possible shape.
They are then kept wrapped up in blankets in a bed in a room of the house or in wealthier homes, they’ll rest in a tongkonan – a traditional Torajan ‘ancestral’ house with a distinctive boat-shaped roof so the rainwater runs off.
They stay there until the funeral takes place, which in some instances can be years or even decades.
Funerals glue Torajans tightly, one family to the next, one village to the next. Funerals consume savings as people outdo each other in gifts of animals, creating multigenerational obligations and conspicuous consumption. Your cousin donates a buffalo? You must give a bigger one. You can’t repay a past gift? Then your son or daughter must. If they can’t, the burden will fall to your grandchildren.
This dark side of funeral obligations can be clearly heard in the cries of the person announcing the gifts. “Whose pig is this?” he speaks over a loudspeaker. “Whose buffalo is this?” In a metal-roofed shelter below, government officials tally the quality and size of each gift for tax purposes. At the ceremony’s end, the neat ledger is presented to the family, which will be expected to reciprocate when some member of a giver’s family dies.
The important thing, Torajans say, is that they are not just individuals. The death of one person is only the dropping of a single stitch in an intricate financial, social, and emotional canvas winding backwards through ancestors and forward through children.
Nevertheless, the Torajan heritage has been handed down from generation to generation for at least 700 years, but probably as far back as prehistoric times, and it is still very much a ‘living culture’. It survived invasions from the Buginese in the seventeenth century and the influx of Dutch missionaries in the early 20th century, and it still endures today.
Source: ancient-origins.net, nationalgeographic.com, thesun.co.uk