Living with the dead
Published : 21 Apr 2017, 13:08
Most of us don't like to think or talk about death, but there are some people who do. In the Toraja region of Sulawesi, in Indonesia, the dead are a constant part of day-to-day life.
The plain wood-panelled living room, with no furniture and just a few pictures on the wall, is filled with chattering voices and the smell of coffee. It is an intimate family gathering.
"How is your father?" one guest asks the host, and the mood suddenly changes. Everyone glances at the small room in the corner, where an old man is lying on a colourful bed.
"He's still sick," replies his daughter, Mamak Lisa, calmly.
Smiling, Mamak Lisa gets up and walks over to the old man, gently shaking him. "Father we have some visitors here to see you - I hope this doesn't make you uncomfortable or angry," she says.
Then she invites me to step inside and meet Paulo Cirinda.
My eyes are fixed on the bed. Paulo Cirinda lies completely motionless - not even a blink - though I could hardly see his eyes through his dusty glasses anyway. His skin looks rough and grey, dotted with countless holes, as if eaten by insects. The rest of his body is covered by several layers of clothing.
I have been staring for far too long when his young grandchildren playfully run into the room, and snap me back to reality.
"Why is granddad always sleeping?" one of them asks with a cheeky laugh. "Granddad, wake up and let's go eat!" the other one almost shouts.
"Shhh… Stop disturbing granddad, he's sleeping," Mamak Lisa snaps at them. "You're going to make him angry."
Now, here's the surprising thing. This man, Paulo Cirinda, died more than 12 years ago - yet his family think he's still very much alive.
To outsiders, the idea of keeping a dead man's body on show at home feels quite alien. Yet for more than a million people from this part of the world - the Toraja region of Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia - it's a tradition dating back centuries. Here, animist beliefs blur the line between this world and the next, making the dead very much present in the world of the living.
After someone dies, it may be months, sometimes years, before a funeral takes place. In the meantime, the families keep their bodies in the house and care for them as if they were sick. They are brought food, drink and cigarettes twice a day. They are washed and have their clothes changed regularly. The dead even have a bowl in the corner of the room as their "toilet". Furthermore, the deceased are never left on their own and the lights are always left on for them when it gets dark. The families worry that if they don't take care of the corpses properly, the spirits of their departed loved ones will give them trouble.
Traditionally, special leaves and herbs were rubbed on the body to preserve it. But nowadays, a preserving chemical, formalin, is injected instead.
It leaves a powerful chemical reek in the room.
Lovingly stroking her father's leathery cheekbones, Mamak Lisa says she still feels a strong emotional connection with him. "Although we're all Christians," she explains, with hand on heart, "relatives often visit him or call on the phone to see how Dad's doing, because we believe that he can hear us and is still around."
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