As part of our third year Anthropology of Life and Death module, students explore cross-cultural understandings of life and death. This week, our featured essay is by Olivia Mounsor.
Olivia’s bio: I have just completed my third year at Roehampton studying Anthropology and over the duration of my course I have been fascinated with animism and different understandings of what it means to be human. For a third-year module surrounding concepts of Life and Death, I began to enjoy exploring the middle ground between life and death in different cultural contexts, in this instance the Toraja group of South Sulawesi, Indonesia.
This essay looks to explore notions surrounding life and death, grieving and mourning cross-culturally between societies that place almost religious emphasis on science, and others that explore animistic principles. To understand these topics it is first crucial to explore the meanings behind grief and mourning. Grief has been defined as the ‘experience of stress following a loss’ and mourning is understood to be the ‘conscious and unconscious psychological processes set into motion by a loss’ (Wellenkamp, 1988).
In the context of our own Western culture, life and death are not gradients on a vast spectrum, rather binary biological, concrete definitions, describing a state of being. An individual is viewed to be alive or dead, however, they can never be viewed as simultaneously both, or somewhere in-between. Death, therefore, is often sudden and hard to deal with. Fearing death, whether it be your own, or that of a loved one, is almost intrinsic, making the process of coming to terms with loss through grieving and mourning difficult. It is not just the concept of death that often frightens people, as the University of Rochester describes, fear of the unknown, loss of control and separation from family and friends are the biggest sources of anxiety surrounding death in adolescents (Urmc.rochester.edu, n.d.). Our reliance on understanding the world through scientific principle and application has led to science becoming almost a religion in its own right, in an increasingly secular society. This reliance on explaining loss through biological processes has led to almost an emotional jet lag between the death of an individual and the mourning and grieving of those who surround them.
Western culture, driven by medical advancement, pharmaceuticals and technology, often glorifies medicine, drugs and treatment but fears death, in a way that considers death to be a failure of technology or will as opposed to a natural process. This can often lead to a large portion of the population dying in hospitals and institutions, when the majority (Bennett, 2016), would prefer to die in peace at home. The sudden nature and permanence of death can often be hard to deal with, an individual can go from being alive and present to dead and gone within moments, due to accident or illness. Death is seen as something to be feared and Western horror stories feature the concept of zombies, animated corpses who have been brought back to life; they are known to be hard to stop and play on preexisting fright surrounding the liminality between life and death. To separate the emotional side of death from the biological it is important to acknowledge the human suffering involved. Cross-culturally, funeral rituals and rites of passage help ease the minds of those coming to terms with loss and, additionally, can hold significance helping the deceased pass onto the next life with ease.
One of the examples I wish to explore is the Toraja of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Today, the majority of the Toraja are Christian, after primarily protestant Dutch missionaries introduced the religion to the area in the 20th century. However, a large portion of the population still adheres to traditional animistic principles of the native religion, Alukta, meaning ‘our religion/way’ (Wellenkamp, 1988) Alukta, like most animistic based religions, is based upon the worship of gods, spirits and ancestors. One prominent aspect of the Toraja and their spiritual beliefs are that they are divided into two distinctly separate yet complementary spheres known as ‘smoke ascending’ and ‘smoke descending’ rituals (Wellenkamp, 1988). Simplistically, ‘smoke ascending’ rituals are known to promote health, prosperity and good rice harvest, and ‘smoke descending’ rituals include funerals and a form of ‘secondary’ burial known as ma’nene. Ma’nene would include cleaning and repairing grave sites, bringing offerings to burial tombs and attending to the remains of the deceased. The frequency of these rituals varies by region and could occur once a year, or at infrequent 10-year intervals. The introduction of Christianity and authority of church officials have limited the number of smoke ascending rituals that are allowed to occur, however, the Toraja still freely practice smoke descending rituals such as ma’nene.’
Before ma’nene can occur, the dead must first have their primary burial and funeral. These types of smoke-descending ceremonies are incredibly expensive and cost several times the average Toraja’s annual income. In addition to the funerals being costly, the Toraja hold out on burying their dead until they are feeling emotionally ready to let go, unlike many Western cultures where funerals usually happen within a week or two of the individual passing away. For Torajans, the death of the body is not the death of the soul and is just the next step in a long, unfolding process. The keeping of the body for months and even years is for the benefit of the spirit just as much for the benefit of the family. To ensure the spirit is happy and not feeling lost or forgotten, the family will bring offerings of food and cigarettes to the body a few times a day between the period of biological death and burial. This acceptance and normalisation of death into day to day life means that the Toraja do not see death as a brick wall, rather a gauze veil (Bennett, 2016). In addition to offerings of food, guests and family members will visit the deceased who occupy a separate room in the family home. They are injected with a solution of formalin (formaldehyde and water) to preserve the body, and it is understood that a well-preserved body brings about good fortune. The introduction of formalin into the body shortly after biological death means that the body will begin to mummify instead of putrefying.
Guests and family members will talk to the deceased in the present tense and simply refer to them as ‘sick’ makula as opposed to ‘dead’. Conversations reported by Bennett (2016) state that Torajans speak to their dead and ‘expect him to answer to me’ and one lady, upon bringing dinner to her mother-in-law who passed away two weeks prior, said that she’s ‘not sad, because she is still with us.’ Budiman (2014), wrote that if the deceased of the Toraja would be buried in the same time frame as one might expect a Western funeral to be organised, then it would be far too abrupt and ‘as if a hawk careened suddenly upon its prey, snatching it in its talons and vanishing forever in the split of a second.’
When the time is right for a funeral to be hosted, they can often be carried out over several days, with lots of prayers, chanting, singing and sacrificing animals. It is an event for the whole family, village and even tourists. It is understood that tourists are welcomed at the Torajan funerals as evidence a family and their deceased’s cultural importance. Buffalo holds great significance to the Torajans and are used as a form of currency when organising funerals, everything is measured in the quality and number of buffalos bought by the family to signify their importance, wealth and status. Torajans also say that the sacrifice of buffalos makes the transition of the spirit from the body easier, and try to minimise any problems the spirit may encounter by sacrificing as many as is financially viable. Until the point of sacrifice during the funeral, the buffalo are looked after by the boys and girls of the village with pride, similar to how you would raise a pet. The status and pride that goes into giving gifts for these funeral rituals lead to multigenerational obligations (Bennett, 2016). For each gift you receive, you must return with a larger gift, leading to inherited outstanding debts of gifts, whether that be in livestock or money, funerals cost not just the direct family, but the entire network of people attending – one buffalo can be sold with a starting price of $2000.
When it is periodically chosen to be the time to host a ma’nene ceremony, the deceased are brought out of their resting places, often lifting the bodies out of the coffin, despite having been dead for up to, and over, 20 years. Typically, ma’nene is held in the month of August, and these ‘second funerals’ are a chance for the surviving family to visit the ancestral tombs, tidy up the tombs, bring their dead food, cigarettes and new clothing. This process keeps the deceased alive in spirit, meaning the family don’t feel alone or abandoned by the death of a close family member. It is viewed as a natural part of life that shouldn’t be feared but rather embraced. To reaffirm an earlier sentence, the death of the body is not the death of the soul.
The western attitude of glorifying medicine and fearing death has exacerbated the fear of death and emotional jet lag that is felt following the death of a loved one. Death is seen as a cause for sadness, for loneliness and uncertainty. It is often hushed and pushed aside, perhaps the emotional jetlag would be made easier on Western ideologies if death was less taboo, feared and the process of funerals and burials were not rushed into a short time space as possible.
Bennett, A. (2016). When Death Doesn’t Mean Goodbye. [online] Nationalgeographic.com. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/04/death-dying-grief-funeral-ceremony-corpse/ [Accessed Jan. 2019].
Budiman, M. (2014). Contemporary Funeral Rituals of Sa’dan Toraja. From Aluk Todolo to “New” Religions. Prague: Charles University in Prague, Karolinum Press.
Urmc.rochester.edu. (n.d.). A Child’s Concept of Death – Health Encyclopedia – University of Rochester Medical Center. [online] Available at: https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=90&ContentID=P03044 [Accessed 2019].
Volkman, T. (1979). The Riches of the Undertaker. Indonesia, 28, p.1.
Waterson, R. (2018). Expressions of Austronesian Thought and Emotions. In: J. Fox, ed., Expressions of Austronesian Thought and Emotions. pp.81-128.
Wellenkamp, J. (1988). Notions of Grief and Catharsis among the Toraja. American Ethnologist, 15(3), pp.486-500