(Warning in the article with images that may be offensive to readers)
As a host, 90-year-old Alfrida Lantong is somewhat passive. Lying resolutely on her back and gazing up through a pair of thick, dusty spectacles, she roundly ignores her son’s murmured greeting as he enters the room, and she pays little heed to the gaggle of grandchildren clustered around her.
But Alfrida can hardly be blamed for her unresponsiveness. After all, she has been dead for the last ten years.
Alfrida is of the Toraja people of southern Sulawesi in Indonesia, for whom the line between life and death is not black and white. Though her heart stopped beating in 2012, as far as her family is concerned, she is only to macula, which translates loosely as “sick.” They still visit her regularly, talk to her and bring her three meals a day, which they leave on the floor.
After saying goodbye, Alfrida’s son, Mesak, covers her with a light veil and closes the lid of her coffin before exiting the room. He will visit her again at supper time. “We would miss her if she didn’t still live here,” says the 47-year-old. “She looked after us our whole lives, so now it is important that we look after her too.”
Beyond her silent companionship, one of the reasons Alfrida still lives with her family , preparations for her funeral are not yet complete. In Torajan culture, a person’s funeral is the most important day of his or her life. Funerals can be so expensive that successive generations will be saddled with crippling debt. The events can last a week and involve the slaughter of hundreds of livestock.
“We need more time to save,” says Mesak, whose family belongs to what he calls the “noble” class in the stratified Torajan caste system. “The community would not respect us if we did a small funeral. We must sacrifice many buffalo.”
Toraja country stretches for hundreds of miles across the mountainous interior of Sulawesi, a land of verdant hills and scattered villages connected by a network of dirt tracks that wind their way through lush rice paddies and patches of thick forest. It is an enclave of Christianity in a predominantly Muslim country, although traditional beliefs remain prevalent. Especially when it comes to death.
In Tana Toraja, death is not something to shy away from. It is an all-pervading presence in day-to-day life, inscribed into the landscape in eerie wooden tau-tau statues, commissioned by the bereaved to remember the dead, and into the social calendar, which revolves heavily around funerals.
In some communities, to show respect, the dead are exhumed every few years and dressed in fresh clothes, often with a new pair of sunglasses, as if their pride over their appearance had not expired with their bodies.
And when a baby dies, the body is sometimes buried in a hole carved out of the trunk of a tree so that the two may live on and grow together.
In a village near Alfrida Lantong’s home, set on a steep hillside above a sea of brilliant apple-green paddies, another Torajan family is making last-minute preparations for its big day. The “sick” man, Lucas Ruruk, was a farmer from one of the middle social classes. His funeral will be of average size by Torajan standards. Yet the family is still expecting 5,000 guests and estimates that the event, which will last several days, will cost roughly 250 million rupiah (around $18,000). That’s roughly five times the average yearly income in Indonesia.
“We’re sad about the funeral,” says Ruruk’s 28-year-old son, Izak Sapan. “But it is the most important day in my father’s life. It is when his soul will make the journey to heaven.”
His father lies upstairs in his bedroom, dressed immaculately in a dark suit and tie and a white shirt with floral designs on the collar. He died the previous month and has been lying here receiving visitors ever since. Shortly after death, his body was injected with a formaldehyde solution to prevent it from decomposing, as is the local custom.
The next morning, Ruruk’s home is a scene of pandemonium. Trussed-up pigs are carried in squealing on bamboo stretchers while vendors set up stalls by the entrance selling soft drinks, snacks and cigarettes to the arriving guests. As the event gets underway, buffaloes are led out to have their throats slit in front of a transfixed crowd. A DJ plays local ballads, and a group of women performs traditional dances as the ground slowly turns scarlet with blood. A video crew hired by the family records the scene.
Back in Alfrida Lantong’s household, the endless saving continues. Her son estimates that the event will cost over a billion rupiah (about $73,800).
“But we don’t even think about the cost,” Mesak, her son, says. “She will be traveling to the realm of the soul, and we must send her off in our own way. It is our Torajan culture. It is what we do.”