Ferdinand Magellan and me (6): Death in a tropical climate

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Death rites in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Although Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world its politics is non-sectarian, at least officially. In Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, mosques and churches co-habit with extraordinary funeral houses with saddle-shaped roofs devoted to pagan death rites. They are so intriguing they have become tourist attractions. The funeral is a send-off party for the deceased, whose embalmed body may have been waiting years while relatives raise money for the elaborate ceremony. It is an opportunity for the entire extended family to come together not in grief but in celebration of a soul passing on to another life. Looking down from the eaves of some houses we noticed tapestries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

The body is laid to rest with the necessities for an ongoing existence. For 100 rupiah a little girl of about 7 with a lighted candle offered to show us through the burial catacomb so we would not be scared. One wall of the cave resembled rows and rows of post office boxes chiselled out of the rock; the occupant of each box represented by a manikin. Others, which may have been more than a thousand years old according to our guide, were reduced to skeletons but still received attention from their descendants. Not flowers but useful items like packets of rice and strips of buffalo flesh adorned the graves. One mummified old lady clutched an umbrella, apparently expecting rain in heaven.


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Sailor from wayback with a Master's degree in Technology Management. Prefer classical music to rap and chicken curry to steak.

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