Do you want to go to a Funeral?

Rantepao, Sulawesi,
July 10, 2011

Having arrived at Rantepao, I searched for an internet café and found one. To my delight there was a spa and massage place upstairs in the same building. There was also a small library of books in English. Needless to say I spent a good chunk of the day there and in the process met the owner.

Her name is Fransisca but she goes by Sisca. Young, energetic and given to peals of laughter, I only met her yesterday but feel like I’ve known her a while. We hung out a bit, went for a walk and she gave me the inside scoop on the best places to eat.

Today, when we met she asked “Do you want to go to a funeral?”
“What?!” would have been my initial response except I had been reading about the elaborate funerals that the Tana Toraja practice. I would love to but wasn’t sure of the social protocols involved.
“But I am not family. Won’t that matter?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she answered “at funerals like this people come from even far away villages and towns. But we can go to my aunt’s house and you can meet their family. This is a funeral of their family.”

No more need be said. Just as Sisca had said, I was courteously invited and arrangements made for her cousin to pick me up as well as Sisca and a couple of others the next day.

July 11, 2011
A village called Bokin

Sisca’s cousin came as arranged and we set off, squished into a 4WD. The village lay some 20 kms from Rantepao. As we passed the hanging graves of Kate Kesu and continued south to Bokin, the narrow concrete road soon gave out and a muddy, potholed road began. Above the babble of conversation, Sisca or one of her cousins pointed out things of interest as we lurched along.
The family hosting the funeral are clearly well off – the number of elongated “horns” of the roof was more than six.

IMG_2130Each of these rice barns/houses are set separately around the compound and all are identical in design. Stilts raised aboveground support a wooden platform. Atop the platform another staircase leads up to the top floor. The house itself is simple – one large space some ten meters by six meters. There are wooden platforms at either end which are sleeping areas, traditionally one for me and one for women. There are no beds or mattresses but a number of rolled up woven palm mats rest in one corner. Come bedtime, these are rolled out. The space in between is for dining and often the wall of the dining space is the kitchen.

IMG_2133Simple, functional and stark, it is at odds with the exterior which is richly decorated. The wood is carved in eye-catching geometric designs. Almost all are abstract designs with the exception of chickens or roosters on the triangular panels that lead up to the ends of the roof. The colors are rich as well – dark browns, rich reds and black. Traditionally the family tells me, all these were painted using ground minerals but nowadays they use paint bought in a shop.
IMG_2209It is the roofs of these houses that are the most intriguing. At either end the roof swings up into the air like the prows of a boat. Legend has it that the ancestors of the Toraja came from the south. Pushed out by the Bugis tribe, they traveled along river Sa’ad in boats and the roofs are reminiscent of those voyages. Traditional tongkonan, as these houses are called, had roofs of split bamboo. One can still see them overgrown with grass and weeds – inevitable in a damp climate. These days though the roofs are made of corrugated tin if they are made in the old forms at all. Most houses are made with normal flat roofs which are a lot less expensive to build. The rice barns though are still made in the traditional form.

IMG_2139The scale of a funeral rises with the affluence of the family. This family is clearly very well-off. Under the rice barns, temporary platforms have been erected. The platforms are of bamboo and have ladders leading up to them, each about eight square meters. Each is lined with woven palm mats and each is numbered, designated for guests in strict social hierarchy. A funeral in these parts is to usher the dead into the second life but also a means to show-off the family’s status in society. I, being a temporary part of “high class”, was seated in an area up front, across from the resting place of the dead.

One may need an invitation to a wedding but none are required to attend a funeral. And many are the guests who have come from far-flung towns and villages, complete with their bundle of clothes and bedding, fully intending to eat, sleep and spend three or four days here at the expense of the host. They also bring gifts of sugar and cigarettes. When I asked about the strange combination, I was told that sugar is needed for the thousands of cups of tea that was brewed and served to guests and the cigarettes are offered to guests as well.

Several of the immediate family of the deceased came by to shake our hands and paused to chat. We were plied with tea and biscuits all through the day and treated to a meal as well. Around me at other platforms were other groups of guests. I noticed several times that when the platters of food would arrive, the women would have a bit and then proceed to empty out the food into their own containers and bags that they brought. Apparently you not only go to a funeral to eat, but take every crumb that is offered home with you! More than anything else this is a social occasion. It is a time for gossip, of seeing and being seen. Details are scrutinized and noted, no doubt to be re-hashed later.

IMG_2188The coffin covered in bright red and decorated with gold foil curlicues, looks more like a space pod than anything else. Today is the first day of the funeral, when the deceased is taken out of the house, placed in smaller replica of a tongkonan and moved to a special place. This journey which symbolizes the journey to the second life is made with great fanfare. The procession is led with a number of buffaloes and some oversized pigs, some of them being generous donations of visiting family. These will be butchered and the meat given to the many visitors.
The coffin-carrying tongkonan is then lashed to a bamboo frame and hoisted atop shoulders of a group of men. A long procession of people follows under a bright red banner and behind them come the professional singers, hired for this occasion. The singers, all men, dressed in black sarongs and white shirts number some thirty odd. They sing and dance. Sisca tells me that the more affluent the family, the more the number of hired singers.IMG_2150

The procession moves forward amid a general air of festivities. In addition to the monotonic singing of the hired choir, there is a sound like drumming. But it is not drums. It is the sound of bamboo poles held by half a dozen women as they strike the bottom and the sides of a large, hollowed out wood bin.

IMG_2202A traditional way to husk rice, this action symbolizes a traditional way of life and is considered an appropriate way to send the deceased on his or her journey.
On the second day, visitors may ask to view the coffin and bring with them gifts for the hosts.

IMG_2180The gifts may be buffaloes or pigs or other animals – all of them led down the aisle between the platforms so they can be viewed by all, accompanied by announcements made over the loudspeaker so none are left ignorant of the giver and the gifts. It is all very organized with an eye to showing off one’s wealth and cementing one’s place in society. Then comes the butchering and distribution of the meat.IMG_2145
On the last day the coffin is carried to the burial place and the replica tongkonan placed above it. It is these burial sites that one sees on some of the hillsides. A tau-tau, an image of the deceased is often placed at the site but so many are often stolen, they tell me, that now they are kept at home. It used to be that the graves were also provided with food, money and other provisions but so many have been plundered that these too are now kept at home.

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