April 19, 2019

Living with the dead

fstMost of us don’t like to think or talk about death, but there are some people who do. In the Toraja region of Sulawesi, in Indonesia, the dead are a constant part of day-to-day life.
Warning: Readers may find some images disturbing.
The plain wood-panelled living room, with no furniture and just a few pictures on the wall, is filled with chattering voices and the smell of coffee. It is an intimate family gathering.
“How is your father?” one guest asks the host, and the mood suddenly changes. Everyone glances at the small room in the corner, where an old man is lying on a colourful bed.
“He’s still sick,” replies his daughter, Mamak Lisa, calmly.
Smiling, Mamak Lisa gets up and walks over to the old man, gently shaking him. “Father we have some visitors here to see you – I hope this doesn’t make you uncomfortable or angry,” she says.
Then she invites me to step inside and meet Paulo Cirinda.
My eyes are fixed on the bed. Paulo Cirinda lies completely motionless – not even a blink – though I could hardly see his eyes through his dusty glasses anyway. His skin looks rough and grey, dotted with countless holes, as if eaten by insects. The rest of his body is covered by several layers of clothing.
I have been staring for far too long when his young grandchildren playfully run into the room, and snap me back to reality.
“Why is granddad always sleeping?” one of them asks with a cheeky laugh. “Granddad, wake up and let’s go eat!” the other one almost shouts.
“Shhh… Stop disturbing granddad, he’s sleeping,” Mamak Lisa snaps at them. “You’re going to make him angry.”
Now, here’s the surprising thing. This man, Paulo Cirinda, died more than 12 years ago – yet his family think he’s still very much alive.
To outsiders, the idea of keeping a dead man’s body on show at home feels quite alien. Yet for more than a million people from this part of the world – the Toraja region of Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia – it’s a tradition dating back centuries. Here, animist beliefs blur the line between this world and the next, making the dead very much present in the world of the living.After someone dies, it may be months, sometimes years, before a funeral takes place. In the meantime, the families keep their bodies in the house and care for them as if they were sick. They are brought food, drink and cigarettes twice a day. They are washed and have their clothes changed regularly. The dead even have a bowl in the corner of the room as their “toilet”. Furthermore, the deceased are never left on their own and the lights are always left on for them when it gets dark. The families worry that if they don’t take care of the corpses properly, the spirits of their departed loved ones will give them trouble.
Traditionally, special leaves and herbs were rubbed on the body to preserve it. But nowadays, a preserving chemical, formalin, is injected instead.
It leaves a powerful chemical reek in the room.
Lovingly stroking her father’s leathery cheekbones, Mamak Lisa says she still feels a strong emotional connection with him. “Although we’re all Christians,” she explains, with hand on heart, “relatives often visit him or call on the phone to see how Dad’s doing, because we believe that he can hear us and is still around.”To my surprise, Lisa tells me that having her father in the house has helped her to grieve. It’s given her time to adjust slowly to his new identity – that of a dead man.
During their lives, Torajans work hard to accumulate wealth. But rather than striving for a luxurious life, they’re saving up for a glorious departure. Cirinda will lie here until his family is ready to say goodbye – both emotionally and financially. His body will finally leave the family home during an unimaginably lavish funeral, after a grand procession around the village.
According to Torajan belief, funerals are where the soul finally leaves this Earth and starts its long and hard journey into Pooya – the final stage of the afterlife, where the soul gets reincarnated. Buffaloes are believed to be the carriers of the soul into the afterlife and that’s why families sacrifice as many of them as they can, to help make the journey easier for the deceased.
Torajans spend most of their lives saving up for these rituals.
Once the families have saved up enough, they invite all friends and relatives from all over the world. The wealthier the deceased when alive, the larger and more elaborate these ceremonies.
The funeral I attend is for a man called Dengen, who died more than a year ago. Dengen was a rich and powerful man. His funeral lasts for four days, during which 24 buffaloes and hundreds of pigs are sacrificed in his honour. Later, the meat is distributed among the guests, as they celebrate Dengen’s life and his coming reincarnation. His son tells me that the funeral has cost in excess of $50,000 – or more than 10 times the average annual income.
I couldn’t help but to compare this lavish, loud and colourful outdoor funeral – filled with dance, upbeat music, laughter and of course blood – to my dad’s. For him, we held a small ceremony with intimate family, in a small, dark and quiet venue. I am left with a very sad and dark memory of that day – in extraordinary contrast to what Dengen’s family will remember from his funeral.
After the funeral, it’s finally time to inter the dead.

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