For Torajans, living in a remote corner of 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.
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 back home from far away, traffic stops in a manner that not even an ambulance or a police officer can command. Here, death trumps life.
“My mother died suddenly, so we aren’t ready yet to let her go,” says Yohana, as she begins to weep. “I can’t accept burying her too quickly.” So her mother has continued to receive guests in an upstairs room for more than a year. Because Yohana’s mother was the village chief, villagers continue to come to seek blessings for important events, or even permission to marry. When it finally comes to the funeral, a ceremony lasts throughout the whole week.
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.