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Necro-tourism in Sulawesi?

Rantepao, Indonesia


It sounds a little strange, but one of the parts of our trip that I had been anticipating most was the journey into central Sulawesi for the funeral season. I had heard about the breathtaking landscape, the still-functional traditional houses with soaring u-shaped roofs, and the amazingly kind people in Tana Toraja when I was living in Jakarta, but hadn't been able to visit. At the time I just mentally tagged it as one of those places I hoped I could see before I die. And if you haven't already picked up on it, death was a major theme of our visit.

Rantepao is a little town smack-in-the-heart of the sprawling K-shaped island that is Sulawesi. It's up in the mountains, so the air is mercifully cool all day, even pleasantly chilly (that was a treat!) in the mornings. Michael, Sebastian and I arrived on Sunday, Aug. 9 expecting to battle throngs of tourists on package tours, like our guidebook warned. But, "touristy" in Indonesia is not like spring in South Padre. We saw other foreigners but not droves filling up the streets, and everyone seemed to be respectfully observant of the culture. Of course, we were all there hoping to luck into being part of local funeral ceremonies, so construe that as you will.

You have to understand that death for Torajans is not an end, it's just when a soul goes on a journey to a different place. When a person embarks on this journey, the Torajans believe it helps to throw a giant send-off with as many guests as possible. And you should also understand that there is a "funeral season" here. The deceased member of the family is embalmed, then sits in the family's home until the arrangements have been made for the funeral.

We spent our first couple of days soaking up the cute country-town vibe and walking around the surrounding countryside. On our second night in town, we walked into a souvenir shop and met Martin, a free-lance funeral photographer who likes to spend as much time as possible away from home, and who was happy to take us to some funerals he knew about.

We rented an extra motorbike and left early the next morning to buy a carton of cigarettes - the typical guests' gift to the deceased's family. It was a beautiful drive past gorgeous houses and rice paddies, with mountains poking up into the early-morning fog.

We attended two celebrations: a "small" two-day gathering of hundreds of villages (which we attended both days), and a "medium-large" six-day bonanza with thousands of attendants (where we only stayed for about half an hour). No one really took notice of us at the bigger one. There was already a sea of white people with telescopic cameras when we arrived. At the smaller one, however, we were eagerly greeted honored guests. I'm sure this sounds like I'm justifying a voyeuristic intrusion into someone's grief, and maybe I am since I have to admit I felt a little slimy prowling around looking for a funeral invitation, but I cannot fully express the warmth, hospitality and excitement the family of the deceased displayed at our arrival.

They were sacrificing pigs when we showed up at the first, smaller ceremony. That was ... well, disturbing, but remarkably quick and surely more humane than the way most of the pigs I eat meets their end. The men butchered the pigs on palm leaves and stuffed the meat into bamboo poles, which they put on a fire to cook with some wild herbs. It was amazing food. They also gave us some home-brewed palm alcohol, which was less delicious.

Interestingly, the family was Catholic. It's been a while since I've been to a Catholic funeral in the states, but I seem to recall them going a bit differently. Some things, it seems though, are universal: when the English-speaking family member asked about our religion, and what sort of time commitments we might have, and we confirmed that we are Catholic, she said, "oh, well in that case, you have time for communion." Good ol' Catholic guilt. Of course, we wouldn't have missed out on a Torajan funeral mass. Really, it wasn't so different, except that the kneelers were unpadded wood and there weren't any instruments.

After the mass, the family took the coffin to the forest and placed it in a prepared tomb. They thanked us again and again for sharing our time with them.

I'll post pictures soon, but right now I have to go. The poor woman at this internet cafe hasn't eaten anything all day since it's Ramaddan here, it's closing time, and I'm the only thing standing in between here and food. I'll add to this a little later.

permalink written by  katieandmichael on August 14, 2009 from Rantepao, Indonesia
from the travel blog: Katie and Michael's Travel Blog
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Oh Katie! I love you girl! Great blog entry :)

permalink written by  Angie N. on August 26, 2009

This blog was so creepy and cool at the same time. They keep their dead relatives in their house for months?! interesting culture.

permalink written by  Angie Merriman on August 26, 2009

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