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Living With The Dead

Here, animist beliefs blur the line between this world and the next, making the dead very much present in the world of the living.

01/05/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 01/05/2017 08:39 SAST
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Most 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.

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. I've joined an intimate family gathering in Toraja, to discover how they deal with death for the BBC programme, Our World: Living with the Dead. "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 Cirinda.

My eyes are fixed on the bed. 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, 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 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. 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.

Torajans are rarely buried in the ground. Instead, they are either interred in family tombs or placed inside or outside caves – as it's a mountainous region, there are many of them.

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 a 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.

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. After the funeral, it's finally time to inter the dead.

Torajans are rarely buried in the ground. Instead, they are either interred in family tombs or placed inside or outside caves – as it's a mountainous region, there are many of them. These caves are yet another place where the afterlife seemingly connects with this one. Sometimes winding for kilometres, they hold innumerable coffins and corpses, and even loose skulls and bones. Friends and family bring "necessities" for their dead relatives – often money and cigarettes.

In the rest of the world, these practices may seem bizarre. But perhaps the principles behind them are not so very different from those found in other cultures. Remembering the dead is something many of us try to do. The Torajans just take a very different approach.