National Geographic : 2016 Apr
60 national geographic • april 2016 written down only in the early 20th century, so most of the old traditions are still oral. Only recently, through carbon dating of wooden cof- fin fragments, have archaeologists concluded that there are Torajan death practices that date back at least as far as the ninth century A.D. The first Dutch ships arrived in what is now Indonesia in the late 16th century, searching for nutmeg and cloves. Just over 300 years later they reached Toraja, a cultural region that today encompasses the districts of Toraja Utara and Tana Toraja. Thanks to Dutch missionaries, it’s a Christian enclave, made up mostly of Protes- tants but also Roman Catholics, in a majority- Muslim country. Christianity has tried more or less successfully to partner with traditional practices: Nearly every step of a Torajan death is greeted with prayers, readings from Matthew or John, and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Toraja is dotted with villages perched high on the side of cliffs or nestled deep in the val- leys below. Rantepao, a dusty town of 26,000, is reached mainly via an eight-hour trip from Sulawesi’s largest city, Makassar, on 200 miles of corkscrewing, cliff-hugging road. The villages in turn are connected only by winding, one- lane dirt paths carrying two-lane traffic that dodges dogs and toddlers along routes pocked with head-banging, watermelon-size ruts. I made the rough trek here after years spent writing and speaking about an American way of death that glorifies medicine and drugs but fears death, which it considers a failure of technolo- gy or will. That leaves most Americans dying in institutions, when the majority say they would prefer to die in peace at home. After my hus- band, Terence, died, I began seeking alternatives. I have come here to explore a culture that is even more extreme, but in the opposite direction. There are obvious limits to my search. Feed- ing the dead, letting bodies hang around, and opening coffins aren’t practices the rest of us will likely adopt anytime soon. Even so, I can’t help wondering if the more gradual rhythm and pacing of Torajan death practices don’t hew more closely to the actual racking and shud- dering experience of human grief than do our own more buttoned-up rituals. Seeing, talking to, and feeling the presence of a dead loved one are commonplace in the West, write Colin Murray Parkes and Holly G. Priger- son in Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life. “I talk to him and quite expect him to an- swer me,” they quote one widow as saying. Grief itself, they say, doesn’t follow a clean trajectory but rather erupts and calms in cycles over many years—just as Torajan death practices do. But the Western habit of sweeping the dead out of sight within days or even hours of death would seem far too abrupt to a Torajan. “My moth- er died suddenly, so we aren’t ready yet to let her go,” says Yohana Palangda, as she begins to weep. “I can’t accept burying her too quickly.” Her mother has continued to receive guests in 0mi 100 0km 100 NGM MAPS EQUATOR SULAWESI (CELEBES) TANA TORAJA TORAJA UTARA Rantepao Pangala Makassar (Ujungpandang) Gulf of Tolo Gulf of Bone Gulf of Tomini Banda Sea INDONESIA ASIA AUSTRALIA SULAWESI (CELEBES) INDIAN OCEAN PAPUA Toraja Heartland Nearly half a million Torajans live in the highlands of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The vast majority, at least 90 percent, are Christians, but they remain influenced by their traditional religion, Aluk To Dolo, or Way of the Ancestors.