The Land Where the Dead Never Die

Torajan families don't bury loved ones until they're ready—and even then it's not over
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 19, 2017 7:26 PM CDT
Updated Apr 23, 2017 5:30 PM CDT

(Newser) – In most parts of the world, wakes and funerals are the main form of ceremonial closure people have when a loved one passes away. Things are a little different in Indonesia's Toraja region in Sulawesi, where Sahar Zand headed for the BBC to reveal a ritual most may find macabre: keeping dead bodies at home for months, even years. The families here, based partly on superstition that the departed person's spirit will haunt them otherwise, preserve the corpses of loved ones with a special chemical made of formaldehyde and methanol, then position them right in the middle of the household's activities, bringing the bodies food and water, bathing them, and even leaving the lights on all night as they keep referring to them in the present tense. This all takes place until family members have completed the mourning process in their own time and accepted that the deceased person is really dead.

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This unusual transition eventually culminates with the body's "grand procession" around town and an "unimaginably lavish funeral," which Torajans often save up their whole lives for so they can afford the best final send-off possible, with guests from around the globe invited to bear witness. One elaborate funeral Zand attended was a four-day event that cost the man's family more than $50,000 and included the slaughter of hundreds of pigs and two dozen buffaloes (among the locals, buffaloes are thought to be the creatures that transport the dead to the afterlife, where their souls are then reincarnated). But as Zand explains, "Even interment doesn't mean goodbye," with a reunion of sorts between the living and the dead every couple of years. More on the fascinating, if somewhat morbid, practice here. (A 17th-century French noblewoman was buried with her husband's heart on top of her coffin.)

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