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I think it's safe to say that all humans will be intimate with death at least once in their lives. But what if that intimacy began long before you faced your own transition from life into death? What would life be like if the dead literally lived alongside you?
In my husband's homeland in the highlands of Sulawesi island in eastern Indonesia, there is a community of people that experience death not as a singular event but as a gradual social process. In Tana Toraja, the most important social moments in people's lives, the focal points of social and cultural interaction are not weddings or births or even family dinners, but funerals. So these funerals are characterized by elaborate rituals that tie people in a system of reciprocal debt based on the amount of animals -- pigs, chickens and, most importantly, water buffalo -- that are sacrificed and distributed in the name of the deceased. So this cultural complex surrounding death, the ritual enactment of the end of life, has made death the most visible and remarkable aspect of Toraja's landscape. Lasting anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, funeral ceremonies are a raucous affair, where commemorating someone who's died is not so much a private sadness but more of a publicly shared transition. And it's a transition that's just as much about the identity of the living as it is about remembrance of the dead.
So every year, thousands of visitors come to Tana Toraja to see, as it were, this culture of death, and for many people these grandiose ceremonies and the length of the ceremonies are somehow incommensurable with the way that we face our own mortality in the West. So even as we share death as a universal experience, it's not experienced the same way the world over. And as an anthropologist, I see these differences in experience being rooted in the cultural and social world through which we define the phenomena around us. So where we see an unquestionable reality, death as an irrefutable biological condition, Torajans see the expired corporeal form as part of a larger social genesis. So again, the physical cessation of life is not the same as death. In fact, a member of society is only truly dead when the extended family can agree upon and marshal the resources necessary to hold a funeral ceremony that is considered appropriate in terms of resources for the status of the deceased. And this ceremony has to take place in front of the eyes of the whole community with everyone's participation.
So after a person's physical death, their body is placed in a special room in the traditional residence, which is called the tongkonan. And the tongkonan is symbolic not only of the family's identity but also of the human life cycle from birth to death. So essentially, the shape of the building that you're born into is the shape of the structure which carries you to your ancestral resting place. Until the funeral ceremony, which can be held years after a person's physical death, the deceased is referred to as "to makala," a sick person, or "to mama," a person who is asleep, and they continue to be a member of the household. They are symbolically fed and cared for, and the family at this time will begin a number of ritual injunctions, which communicates to the wider community around them that one of their members is undergoing the transition from this life into the afterlife known as Puya.
But instead of giving in to the sort of visceral reaction we have to this idea of proximity to bodies, proximity to death, or how this notion just does not fit into our very biological or medical sort of definition of death, I like to think about what the Torajan way of viewing death encompasses of the human experience that the medical definition leaves out. I think that Torajans socially recognize and culturally express what many of us feel to be true despite the widespread acceptance of the biomedical definition of death, and that is that our relationships with other humans, their impact on our social reality, doesn't cease with the termination of the physical processes of the body, that there's a period of transition as the relationship between the living and the dead is transformed but not ended. So Torajans express this idea of this enduring relationship by lavishing love and attention on the most visible symbol of that relationship, the human body. So my husband has fond memories of talking to and playing with and generally being around his deceased grandfather, and for him there is nothing unnatural about this. This is a natural part of the process as the family comes to terms with the transition in their relationship to the deceased, and this is the transition from relating to the deceased as a person who's living to relating to the deceased as a person who's an ancestor. And here you can see these wooden effigies of the ancestors, so these are people who have already been buried, already had a funeral ceremony. These are called tau tau.
So the funeral ceremony itself embodies this relational perspective on death. It ritualizes the impact of death on families and communities. And it's also a moment of self-awareness. It's a moment when people think about who they are, their place in society, and their role in the life cycle in accordance with Torajan cosmology.
There's a saying in Toraja that all people will become grandparents, and what this means is that after death, we all become part of the ancestral line that anchors us between the past and the present and will define who our loved ones are into the future. So essentially, we all become grandparents to the generations of human children that come after us. And this metaphor of membership in the greater human family is the way that children also describe the money that they invest in these sacrificial buffaloes that are thought to carry people's soul from here to the afterlife, and children will explain that they will invest the money in this because they want to repay their parents the debt for all of the years their parents spent investing and caring for them.
But the sacrifice of buffalo and the ritual display of wealth also exhibits the status of the deceased, and, by extension, the deceased's family. So at funerals, relationships are reconfirmed but also transformed in a ritual drama that highlights the most salient feature about death in this place: its impact on life and the relationships of the living.
So all of this focus on death doesn't mean that Torajans don't aspire to the ideal of a long life. They engage in many practices thought to confer good health and survival to an advanced age. But they don't put much stock in efforts to prolong life in the face of debilitating illness or in old age. It's said in Toraja that everybody has sort of a predetermined amount of life. It's called the sunga'. And like a thread, it should be allowed to unspool to its natural end.
So by having death as a part of the cultural and social fabric of life, people's everyday decisions about their health and healthcare are affected. The patriarch of my husband's maternal clan, Nenet Katcha, is now approaching the age of 100, as far as we can tell. And there are increasing signs that he is about to depart on his own journey for Puya. And his death will be greatly mourned. But I know that my husband's family looks forward to the moment when they can ritually display what his remarkable presence has meant to their lives, when they can ritually recount his life's narrative, weaving his story into the history of their community. His story is their story. His funeral songs will sing them a song about themselves. And it's a story that has no discernible beginning, no foreseeable end. It's a story that goes on long after his body no longer does.
People ask me if I'm frightened or repulsed by participating in a culture where the physical manifestations of death greet us at every turn. But I see something profoundly transformative in experiencing death as a social process and not just a biological one. In reality, the relationship between the living and the dead has its own drama in the U.S. healthcare system, where decisions about how long to stretch the thread of life are made based on our emotional and social ties with the people around us, not just on medicine's ability to prolong life. We, like the Torajans, base our decisions about life on the meanings and the definitions that we ascribe to death.
So I'm not suggesting that anyone in this audience should run out and adopt the traditions of the Torajans. It might be a little bit difficult to put into play in the United States. But I want to ask what we can gain from seeing physical death not only as a biological process but as part of the greater human story. What would it be like to look on the expired human form with love because it's so intimately a part of who we all are? If we could expand our definition of death to encompass life, we could experience death as part of life and perhaps face death with something other than fear. Perhaps one of the answers to the challenges that are facing the U.S. healthcare system, particularly in the end-of-life care, is as simple as a shift in perspective, and the shift in perspective in this case would be to look at the social life of every death. It might help us recognize that the way we limit our conversation about death to something that's medical or biological is reflective of a larger culture that we all share of avoiding death, being afraid of talking about it. If we could entertain and value other kinds of knowledge about life, including other definitions of death, it has the potential to change the discussions that we have about the end of life. It could change the way that we die, but more importantly, it could transform the way that we live.
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In Tana Toraja, weddings and births aren’t the social gatherings that knit society together. In this part of Indonesia, big, raucous funerals form the center of social life. Anthropologist Kelli Swazey takes a look at this culture, in which the bodies of dead relatives are cared for even years after they have passed. While it sounds strange to Western sensibilities, she says, this could actually be a truer reflection of the fact that relationships with loved ones don’t simply end when breathing does. (Filmed at TEDMED.)
Kelli Swazey examines how religious and spiritual practices form group identity, and play a vital role in structuring the interactions of individuals within a culture. Full bio »