In the land of the living dead

“Oma, wake up, Oma,” the young woman calls into the room behind her as she waves me in. Oma? (Grandma in German or Dutch) I am on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia and during my visit to Grandma it is not only the name of the grandmother of the house that is strange. Not only does the young Indonesian from the Tana Toraja tribe use the word Oma, grandma, a remnant from Dutch colonial times. “Grandma” has been dead for ten years.

The Toraja are certainly the people with the most peculiar burial traditions in the world and you can experience them unexpectedly close up. A souvenir changes from the hands of my guide into the hands of the young woman and she opens the door for me into a kind of children’s room. There are two red-painted coffins in this room. Inside are the mummies of grandma and grandpa, festively dressed and open to the public. The family waits with the funeral until they can pay for the slaughter of ten buffalos, a minimum for a proper funeral – and that will be almost everything the family will ever own. Meanwhile, the grandparents are kept in one of the rooms in the house, right next to the kitchen, mummified and part of the family, as if they were still alive. A white flag in front of the house announces the presence of the deceased in it.

I say goodbye to the grandparents and change places to go to one of the funeral parties. Several hundred guests have already arrived and the village is delighted to see me coming. The more guests, the greater the pleasure. I get a place of honour while they bring the black buffalos, which they will sacrifice for the funeral. Only the first of them gets away with life, because he is auctioned off for the local orphans. There is neither a pension system nor social welfare in Sulawesi. A short blow of the butcher with the extremely sharp knife opens the carotid arteries of the other animals and they bleed without complaint, without panic and without an attempt to escape on the ground in the circle of the guests. I am told that before their death the buffalos were the pride and joy of the family, cared for like family members. They have become unsuspecting from so much affection and love. Only their heads beat helplessly in the dust before they die nestled together.

At last I am brought into the forest to the burial places. In large caves and in rock walls the dead rest, partly as bare bones, partly guarded by painted figures who simulate death guards. None of the people from the village touches them. Gifts are brought to them and they are honoured. It is said that whoever steals skulls or figures is persecuted and tortured by the spirits of the dead.

A tree in a small grove close by guards a special burial place. Stillborn children are embedded in its trunk. The tree continues to grow and the dead children grow up with it. Big spots cover the trunk over and over.

I say goodbye to the dead of the Torajah. But here in the land of the Tana Torajah the families soon meet again. Some years after the death of the grandparents they will all come together, they will open the graves and they will take pictures, with grandma and grandpa in their arms.

U.C. Ringuer

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