Few people like to talk or think about death, but in one region of Indonesia, the dead participate in the daily life of the population.
A strong smell of coffee intoxicates the air inside a wood-paneled living room. Voices echo inside the space without furniture and with only a few paintings hanging on the wall. It is an intimate and welcoming environment.
“How is your father?”, asks one of the guests. The mood changes quickly. Everyone looks at a colorful bed inside a small room.
“He’s still sick,” calmly replies his daughter Mamak Lisa.
Smiling, she gets up and walks towards the old man, and moves him gently.
“Dad, we have some visitors for you. I hope you don’t get angry or uncomfortable,” he adds.
So, she invites me into her room and meet Paulo Cirinda.
My eyes are fixed on the bed. Paulo Cirinda is completely still – and it’s hard to see his eyes behind his dusty glasses.
His skin looks rough and gray, pierced by countless holes, as if he’s been eaten by insects. The rest of the body is covered in several layers of clothing.
Suddenly, the grandchildren start playing inside the room – and force me to face reality.
“Why is grandpa always sleeping?” one of them asks me with a cheeky laugh. “Grandpa, wake up and let’s eat,” another yells.
“Shhh…stop pestering grandpa; he’s sleeping”, Mamak Lisa grabs them both. “You’re going to make him angry.”
It so happens that Paulo Cirinda died 12 years ago – but his family still believes that, somehow, he is alive.
To an outsider, the idea of keeping a dead man’s body at home seems grotesque.
But it’s a centuries-old tradition for more than 1 million people who live in this part of the world – the Tana Toraja region on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia.
Here, the dead are very present in the lives of the living.
After someone dies, it takes months, years, before the funeral takes place. In the meantime, families keep the bodies at home and care for them as if they were just sick.
This includes bringing them food, drinks and cigarettes twice a day.
The bodies are cleaned and their clothes changed regularly.
The dead even have a container in the corner of the room to do “their business.”
Also, they are never left unattended and the lights stay on when it gets dark.
Families fear that if they don’t take care of their bodies properly, spirits could come back to haunt them.
Traditionally, special leaves and herbs are rubbed into the bodies of the dead to preserve them. But nowadays, many use formaldehyde.
The liquid leaves a strong odor in the room.
Lovingly caressing her father’s cheekbones, Mamak Lisa says she still feels a strong emotional connection to him.
“Although we are all Christians,” she explains, with her hand on her chest, “our relatives usually come to visit him or call me to check on him, because we believe he can hear us and is still around us.” adds.
Contrary to what I would imagine, I don’t feel uncomfortable with the presence of the dead.
My own father passed away a few years ago, and he was buried almost immediately – before I had time to digest the news of what had happened. I still couldn’t deal with my suffering.
To my surprise, Lisa tells me that having her father at home helped her get through the grief.
During their lives, Torajans work hard to accumulate wealth. But instead of living a luxurious life, they save up for a glorious departure. Cirinda will remain there until his family is ready to say goodbye to him – emotionally and financially.
His body will finally leave the family home amid a lavish funeral, in a grand procession around the village.
In the Torajans’ belief, funerals are events in which the soul finally leaves Earth and begins its long and difficult journey to Pooya.
Pooya is the final stage of the afterlife. It is there that the soul reincarnates. The buffaloes would carry the souls to this location and this is why families sacrifice as many of these animals as possible, to ease the journey for the dead.
Torajans spend most of their lives saving money for these rituals.
With a fat savings, they invite friends and relatives. The richer the dead person was in life, the greater and more elaborate these ceremonies will be.
The funeral I attended was for a man named Dengen, who died over a year ago. Dengen was a rich and powerful man. His funeral lasted over four days, during which 24 buffaloes and hundreds of pigs were sacrificed.
Then his meat was distributed among the guests as they celebrated Dengen’s life and his reincarnation. His son told me that the funeral cost about US$50,000 (R$155,600) – or more than ten times the average annual salary of a resident of the area.
I couldn’t stop comparing this open-air funeral, noisy and full of opulence and color – filled with dancing, music, laughter and, of course, blood – to my father’s.
For my father, we organized a small, intimate ceremony with the family in a small, quiet, dark place.
I have a very sad memory of that day – probably different from what the Dengen family will have.
After the funeral, it’s time to bury the dead.
Torajans are rarely buried underground. Instead, they are buried in family tombs or placed inside or outside caves – as the region is mountainous, there are many of them.
These locations house various bodies and coffins. Not infrequently, it is possible to come across skeletons and bones in the open. Friends and family bring gifts for the dead – often money and cigarettes.
In a tradition that predates the emergence of photography, images of noble men and women are carefully carved into wood.
Known as tau tau, these carvings use the clothing, jewelry, and even hair of the dead. On average, they cost around US$ 1,000 (R$ 3,100) to produce.
But this burial does not mean goodbye. The physical relationship between the dead and the living continues for a long time, through a ritual known as ma’nene, or “cleansing the bodies.” Every two years, coffins are removed from the graves and opened for a grand meeting with the dead.
In ma’nene ceremonies, friends and family offer food and cigarettes to the dead, who are decorated and cleaned. In the end, they pose with them for family portraits.
Sociology professor Andy Tandi Lolo describes this ritual as a way of maintaining “social interaction between the living and the dead.”
After the Sunday prayers, I followed closely a procession that left a church and proceeded to a small square building with no windows and orange tiles. This is the family tomb. The women’s chants and cries create a surreal atmosphere. Everyone is here for the ma’neme of Maria Solo, who died three years ago – she would be 93 now – and was buried just a year ago. Now the time has come for your return “to the world of the living”.
The men remove a red cylindrical coffin decorated with geometric figures in gold and silver. On top of it, the closest relatives have offerings to Maria – coca leaves, cigarettes, walnuts and buffalo ears. But there is another ritual that needs to be performed before opening the coffin: the sacrifice of the buffalo.
They finally open the coffin and, once again, the strong odor of musk and formaldehyde fills the air. The body of an elderly woman remains motionless inside. Her white hair is neatly tied back from her face, revealing her thin face. Her mouth and eyes are half open and her gray skin makes her look more like a stone statue than a dead woman.
How do her children feel, seeing their mother this way? Her eldest son, a businessman who now lives in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, appears serene. He tells me the ritual doesn’t bore him – on the contrary, it reminds him of how patient his mother “is and how much she loves me.”
Just like Cirinda’s family, Maria Solo’s relatives still refer to her in the present tense, as if she hadn’t died.
Once the body is exposed, the signs of grief and tension disappear. Even I stop being nervous. Another guest – close to Maria Solo – is Estersobon, her daughter-in-law. She tells me the ritual eases the weight of her pain and helps her recall memories of loved ones.
I tell Estersobon that I want to remember my father as he was when he was alive – and that I would be distressed if I saw him dead again.
I confess that I would be afraid to change the image I keep of him in my mind. But Estersobon reinforces that it makes no difference.
After everyone had spent some time with Maria and taken pictures with her, it was time to wrap her in a white sheet. In many villages, they change the dead man’s clothes and transport the corpse on a pilgrimage around the village.
But these rituals are slowly disappearing, as over 80% of Torajans have given up being aluk to dolo (the Torajans’ religion) to become Christians. Little by little, traditions are changing.
However, the two religions have always coexisted.
Andy Tandi Tolo says that when Dutch missionaries arrived in Indonesia about a century ago, they tried to outlaw all forms of animistic religion (the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and material worlds).
In the 1950s, however, colonists realized that if they wanted the Torajans to accept Christianity, they would have to be more flexible and allow them to continue their rituals.
In the rest of the world, these practices seem bizarre. But perhaps the principles behind them are not very different from those of other cultures.
All over the world, we tend to remember our dead. But for Torajans it is something special.