When Death Doesn’t Mean Goodbye

In a remote corner of Indonesia, the departed—and their corpses—remain a part of the family.

Editor's Note: See a preview video of Indian burial rituals on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi as part of The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, airing on the National Geographic Channel beginning in April.

One night, a little before seven, Elisabeth Rante pulls a golden curtain back from the doorway. Together we slip inside. She speaks to her husband. “Papa ... Papa,” she whispers. “We have a guest from far away.” Behind us, second eldest son Jamie enters the room with a tray and walks up quietly. “Here is your rice, Papa. Here is your fish. Here are the chilies,” he says.

As we back silently out of the room, Elisabeth says softly, “Wake up, Papa. It’s time for your dinner.” I turn back for a moment as eldest son Yokke explains: “She’s taking your picture, Papa.”

A touching family scene. Nothing that couldn’t happen anywhere on Earth. Except for one thing. Elisabeth’s husband, a former clerk in the city marriage bureau, has been dead for nearly two weeks. Here, in the handsome, melon-colored concrete house of a respected and prosperous family, Petrus Sampe lies motionless on a wooden twin bed, a red patterned blanket tucked under his chin.

For several more days in this house on the fringe of the town of Rantepao, in the remote highlands of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, Petrus will lie in this bed. His wife and children will speak to him as they bring him food four times a day—breakfast, lunch, dinner, and mid-afternoon tea. “We do this because we love him and respect him so much,” Yokke says. Elisabeth adds, “Before, we used to eat together. He’s still at home—we should feed him.” Formalin (formaldehyde plus water) treatments shortly after death mean the body will not putrefy, but in time it will mummify. The room’s scent is nothing more than the usual hint of sandalwood in a Torajan house. On the wall a picture of Jesus Christ leading a lamb looks down.

Four days later, after musical tributes, a Christian religious service, and a pork, vegetable, and rice dinner for more than a hundred, family members lift Petrus from the bed into a coffin. Videographers record the event. Eight or more children—relatives and friends from the neighborhood—push each other out of the way to get a better view. Afterward Petrus will remain at home, in his coffin, until his funeral in December, four months from now. His wife will live in the house with him until then; some families follow the old custom of never leaving a dead person alone. Until the funeral, Elisabeth and her children will call him to makula’—a sick person. “We believe that even though the father is to makula’, his soul is still in the house,” Yokke says.

For Torajans, 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. 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.

Torajans do not reject medical treatments for life-threatening conditions. Nor do they escape grief when loved ones die. But far from pushing death away, almost everyone here holds death at the center of life. Torajans believe that people aren’t really dead when they die and that a profound human connection lasts well past death. Death for many Torajans is not a brick wall but a gauze veil. It is not a severing but just another kind of connection. Often in Toraja the deep link with a loved one doesn’t end at the grave. Periodically some northern Torajans bring their relatives out of their tombs to give them fresh clothing and burial shrouds.

No one knows exactly when Torajan death practices began. The Torajan language was written down only in the early 20th century, so most of the old traditions are still oral. Only recently, through carbon dating of wooden coffin fragments, have archaeologists concluded that there are Torajan death practices that date back at least as far as the ninth century A.D. The first Dutch ships arrived in what is now Indonesia in the late 16th century, searching for nutmeg and cloves. Just over 300 years later they reached Toraja, a cultural region that today encompasses the districts of Toraja Utara and Tana Toraja. Thanks to Dutch missionaries, it’s a Christian enclave, made up mostly of Protestants but also Roman Catholics, in a majority-Muslim country. Christianity has tried more or less successfully to partner with traditional practices: Nearly every step of a Torajan death is greeted with prayers, readings from Matthew or John, and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Toraja is dotted with villages perched high on the side of cliffs or nestled deep in the valleys below. Rantepao, a dusty town of 26,000, is reached mainly via an eight-hour trip from Sulawesi’s largest city, Makassar, on 200 miles of corkscrewing, cliff-hugging road. The villages in turn are connected only by winding, one-lane dirt paths carrying two-lane traffic that dodges dogs and toddlers along routes pocked with head-banging, watermelon-size ruts.

I made the rough trek here after years spent writing and speaking about an American way of death that glorifies medicine and drugs but fears death, which it considers a failure of technology or will. That leaves most Americans dying in institutions, when the majority say they would prefer to die in peace at home. After my husband, Terence, died, I began seeking alternatives. I have come here to explore a culture that is even more extreme, but in the opposite direction.

There are obvious limits to my search. Feeding the dead, letting bodies hang around, and opening coffins aren’t practices the rest of us will likely adopt anytime soon. Even so, I can’t help wondering if the more gradual rhythm and pacing of Torajan death practices don’t hew more closely to the actual racking and shuddering experience of human grief than do our own more buttoned-up rituals.

Seeing, talking to, and feeling the presence of a dead loved one are commonplace in the West, write Colin Murray Parkes and Holly G. Prigerson in Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life. “I talk to him and quite expect him to answer me,” they quote one widow as saying. Grief itself, they say, doesn’t follow a clean trajectory but rather erupts and calms in cycles over many years—just as Torajan death practices do. But the Western habit of sweeping the dead out of sight within days or even hours of death would seem far too abrupt to a Torajan. “My mother died suddenly, so we aren’t ready yet to let her go,” says Yohana Palangda, as she begins to weep. “I can’t accept burying her too quickly.” Her mother has continued to receive guests in an upstairs room for more than a year. Because Yohana’s mother was the village chief—a position Yohana now has—villagers continue to come to seek blessings for important events, or even permission to marry.

Michaela Budiman, an anthropologist at Charles University, in Prague, Czech Republic, writes that if the deceased in Toraja were buried immediately, it would be “as if a hawk careened suddenly upon its prey, snatching it in its talons and vanishing forever in the split of a second.”

So what is the difference between Yohana’s reluctance to let her mother go and our own? Or between Elisabeth’s conversation with her dead husband and the ones Western widows secretly hold with theirs? Or Elisabeth’s family’s feeding ritual compared with novelist Joan Didion’s reluctance to part with her dead husband’s shoes, lest he need them when he returns? The best thing to resolve grief is time. What if we, like the Torajans, gave ourselves more time to unspool it at its own rate?

A few days after my visit to the deceased Petrus Sampe and his wife, another man’s funeral is in full swing at the other end of town. I climb a shaded bamboo structure the family has built for out-of-town guests. I curl up on a rug next to a young teen, the granddaughter of the deceased. Dinda applies eyeliner. She fiddles with her smartphone. Everyone likes funerals, especially for the chance to meet faraway relatives, she says, as three younger cousins romp nearby, including around their grandfather’s coffin.

Hundreds of men, women, and children wander below or sit chatting in the shade of ancestral homes—called tongkonan—distinctive stilted structures that carpet the region, their giant curved roofs seeming to float like huge red boats on seas of palm, coffee trees, and bougainvillea.

The spaces between the tongkonan are cluttered with squealing pigs bound to bamboo poles, soon to become lunch. Women in slim black-and-white sheath dresses sell cigarettes. A motorcycle vendor hawks Mylar balloons. Sleek, fat water buffalo are everywhere, lounging under trees, standing alongside the road, or being walked in circles by young men who tend them as affectionately as they would pets. A master of ceremonies high in a tower above the crowd addresses a magnificent animal, its huge, gracefully curved horns as wide as a man is tall.

“You are the most important buffalo here,” he says. “You will go with this man to the next world and make him rich.”

A grand Torajan funeral is measured in the number and quality of buffalo, which serve as a form of currency. Everything about the funeral is hierarchical, cementing the status of the dead person’s family, the people who attend, and many who don’t. Today is near the end of more than a week of meals, receptions, meetings, prayers, entertainment, and carefully choreographed rituals separating the dead gradually from life. The body moves from the home into the family’s ancestral building, then into a nearby rice barn, then to the funeral tower overlooking the ceremonial plain.

<p>Cristina Banne, who died in 2011, is held up by her son Bartolomeus Bunga’ as grandson&nbsp;Jerry Putra Bunga’ gives a thumbs-up. With more than half of Torajans living elsewhere, funerary rituals bring families back together.</p>

Cristina Banne, who died in 2011, is held up by her son Bartolomeus Bunga’ as grandson Jerry Putra Bunga’ gives a thumbs-up. With more than half of Torajans living elsewhere, funerary rituals bring families back together.

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 emcee announcing the gifts. “Whose pig is this?” he intones 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 will be presented to the family, which will be expected to reciprocate when some member of a giver’s family dies.

Torajan funerals are also great fun. A funeral is a wedding, a bar mitzvah, and a family reunion all in one, easily outstripping the conviviality of Irish wakes. Lavish funerals are a chance to meet and mingle, to eat and drink well, to enjoy games and entertainment—even to network for jobs or eye prospective mates. There are water buffalo fights. (“No gambling,” the emcee announces. “The family is Christian, and the police are here. The family does not support gambling.”) As a cry goes up summoning the strongest to move the coffin to the tower, at least 50 young men seize the bamboo poles. They chant their way around the field, pumping the coffin up and down as the lyrics grow bawdy: something about body parts, and size, and sexual prowess. A water fight breaks out, with the bearers drenching each other, and the guests, with water from plastic cups.

“You can make an excuse for a wedding, but you have to come to a funeral,” says Daniel Rantetasak, 52, who sits one bright afternoon in the VIP section at the funeral of Lassi Allo To’dang, Dinda’s grandfather. Daniel figures he has attended more than 300 funerals in his lifetime. He says that at a funeral like this a minimum of 24 buffalo should be sacrificed. Sometimes the number may exceed a hundred. At an average of 20 million rupiah per buffalo ($1,425)—prices can go much higher for the most prized, mottled ones—an elite funeral can top $400,000 in buffalo costs alone, paid for by socially compulsory donations and by the many family members who send money home from abroad. Food and drink for hundreds of guests and temporary bamboo housing for visitors add to the costs. People devote resources to funerals even while struggling to pay $10,000 for university expenses. One woman remembers her grandmother saying funds were too scarce to pay for college. A few weeks later her grandmother spent thousands on pigs for a relative’s ceremony. “I was a victim of tradition,” the woman says. It is commonly said that in Toraja, one lives to die.

Yet some Western tourists who come to Toraja seeking the exotic pageantry of funerals find that the human connections, unflinching contact with death, and sheer fun help shift their thinking about their own culture’s habits. “When someone dies in Spain, it’s the worst thing that can happen in a family,” says Antonio Mouchet, an IT consultant touring from Madrid. “We Western people ... don’t think of the end. Here, they have been preparing for years.”

I avert my eyes at the buffalo sacrifice—55 will be killed in total. It feels brutal to Western sensibilities. Torajans look on unfazed; their concern is more for the group than the individual, says Stanislaus Sandarupa, a Torajan and a linguistic anthropologist at Hasanuddin University, in Makassar. The buffalo’s obligation, he says, is to provide meat to ensure human existence. People, in turn, must care for the species and make sure it endures.

While the funeral is unfolding in town, another set of ceremonies is taking place in the countryside. August is a month not only for funerals but also for ma’nene’—the “second funerals” held by families every few years when they return to ancestral tombs to tidy up, bring the dead snacks and cigarettes, and take long-buried bodies out for a turn in the sun and put fresh clothing on them. Daniel Seba Sambara presides over a gathering that includes his wife, a daughter and granddaughter, son, son-in-law, and many others congregated around a grand family crypt on a breezy spot overlooking a valley. Daniel wears new trousers and looks slightly surprised, as if peering out from behind new wire-rimmed glasses. He died in 2012 after 20 years with diabetes. This is the first time his family has seen him since he was interred. This week, for the ceremony of ma’nene’, he was hauled out along with a dozen or so much longer dead relatives, his companions in the crypt.

Relaxed and fit, Pieter, Daniel’s son, followed his father in the construction business in Papua Province, more than a thousand miles away. Pieter’s orange polo shirt is fashionable. His English is excellent. His daughter, Monna, a civil engineer, passes around cell phone pictures of her choir camp in Cincinnati. Pieter and his family are thoroughly modern Torajans.

So how does he feel seeing his three-years-dead father lashed to a stucco pillar, with relatives posed at his side? Proud. And excited. His father’s body is relatively intact and recognizable, unlike those of other relatives lying nearby, which look more like Halloween skeletons. His skin is smooth. His fingernails and beard have grown since they saw him last, relatives exclaim. Daniel was nicknamed Ne’ Boss—Grandpa Boss—years ago, a commentary on his rags-to-riches success. The body’s state is a sign to Pieter that he too will prosper. “Not everybody is like this. It will bring his children and grandchildren success,” he says, gleefully.

I approached this moment with trepidation. After all, we Westerners cringe at the sight of a corpse. Confronted with several, I find myself curiously calm and interested. Everyone is festive, wearing bright colors and appearing decidedly happy. The smell is musty, like a bunch of blankets put away wet and stored for several years. The sight is definitely odd but surprisingly not unpleasant or gruesome. “The way they handle the bodies, it’s not scary at all,” says Ki Tan, an Indonesian who grew up in the Netherlands, as he watches a family interact with a group of long-dead loved ones, including a year-old child, dead for 38 years. Nearby, a 21-year-old backpacker from Berlin grows reflective. “I feel very lucky to have seen this,” says Maria Hart, recalling sadly that she was so upset by her own grandfather’s death that she refused to attend his funeral. “On a personal level, I take some comfort in the tradition,” says Kathleen Adams, an anthropologist at Loyola University Chicago who has lived among Torajans and their dead.

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 backward through ancestors and forward through children. How did Torajans come to believe this? I wonder. Go ask Kambuno, the people say. He’s the man who knows the answers.

In search of Kambuno, we wind northward from the small town of Pangala, skirting rice fields and passing through village after village. Shopkeepers, motorbike riders, and passersby direct us. Everyone knows where Kambuno lives. Two schoolgirls in white shirts, navy skirts, and black ties hop in the car to point the way. When the road peters out, we continue on foot up a steep, rocky course.

We find Petrus Kambuno, wiry, goateed, almost toothless, cutting grass by the side of the road. “You are lucky you found me,” he says. “There is no one left but me who knows these stories.” He claims to be 90 years old. He spins a Genesis-like creation tale, with Toraja at its center. “Here God created man in heaven, and woman from the Earth,” he says. Looking out over lime green terraced rice fields framed against an aquamarine sky, it’s easy to believe that God chose this to be his Eden.

Kambuno continues: God gave the gifts of bamboo and bananas from the Earth and betel and lime from the heavens. “He commanded us to use these things that give people pleasure to ease our grief, to make ourselves feel happy if we are sad when someone dies.”

I realize I’m asking the wrong question. Torajans, it appears, are probably more deeply connected than we are to the way people everywhere feel death: the desire to stay connected to loved ones in both body and spirit; to believe that people don’t ever really die permanently; and to have, and to become, an ancestor. So the question isn’t why do Torajans do what they do, but why do we do what we do? How did we distance ourselves so much from death, which is, after all, just a part of life? How did we lose the sense of being connected to each other, to our place in society, in the universe?

Kambuno gestures at his family crypt, which he says holds more than ten relatives. “My father is in here,” he says. “But I am here, so he is not really dead. My mother is in here, but I have daughters, so she is not really dead. My daughters have been exchanged for my mother. I have been exchanged for my father.”

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