Throughout human history, our definition of death has varied wildly. Even in the scientific terms of Western culture in recent centuries, we have gone from looking for signs of breath, to signs of heartbeat, through to realising that a person can sometimes be ‘brought back’ from death more than an hour after the heart has stopped beating.
Resuscitation expert Dr Sam Parnia has noted that the problem is that our concept of death has “traditionally been very black and white” – we have tried to frame death as a certain moment, rather than what it really is: a process.
The Toraja of Indonesia, on the other hand, fully embrace death as a process – though perhaps more in a spiritual sense rather than as part of Parnia’s scientific model. For them, death is a transition…and a somewhat lengthy process at that.
The Gale Encyclopedia of Religion notes that Toraja funeral rites can be broken down into four fundamental stages:
During the first, the deceased is said to be ill: Washed, dressed, and adorned, he may be nurtured for as long as a year. Then comes the first festivity, lasting from five to seven days, with sacrifices, lamentations, songs, and dances; this marks the difficult passage from life to death and ends with a provisional interment inside the house. During the following intermediary period, these festivities increase. Finally the ultimate ceremony is performed, requiring several months of preparation during which winding-sheets, cenotaphs, and, most notably, an effigy (the famous tau-tau) are employed, not without ostentation; it concludes with the burial and the installation of the deceased in the beyond.
In case you were wondering: yes, the above means that the Toraja basically continue interacting with the corpses of their loved ones for years, feeding, bathing, and dressing them. In August the Ma’nene ritual is held, during which time corpses are exhumed to be cleaned and fitted out with new clothes, and repairs are made to their coffins. As part of this ritual, before being re-interred the dead are quite literally walked around the village.
And while the Toraja continue interacting with the physical remains of their ancestors for many years, the dead also may communicate with their descendants in another way: in his book, Communing with the Gods, Charles Laughlin notes that the Toraja “sometimes experience their long dead ancestors in dreams, and these experiences are taken to be real.”
For more on the funeral customs of the Toraja, see the TED talk below, and also this detailed article at Ancient Origins. A gallery of images of the Ma’nene can be found at the Daily Mail.