It is difficult as an American to imagine a culture where death, not life, defines you. A culture where people save their money not for a big wedding but to have the grandest funeral they can afford. A place where family status is defined by the number of freshly dissected bullhorns that are placed outside the house of your surviving relatives.
In fact, such a place exists in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. In remote villages on the island of Sulawesi live the Torajans who practice animism. Animists believe that all
things have a spiritual component even an animal or a tree.
Contrary to western practice when a Torajan dies, a funeral may not be held for months or years after the death. Until the time of the funeral, the deceased is embalmed and kept in the traditional style home with family members until the funeral. The delay is to give the family time to raise sufficient funds to have a proper funeral.
The funeral itself will last over several days and there are very proscribed ceremonies and rituals. The ceremony begins with the sacrifice of pigs and buffalos. After they have been slaughtered, the meat is distributed to the funeral guests. The horns of the recently killed buffalo are put in front of the home of a close relative of the deceased.
Eleven days after the funeral, the body is finally ready to be placed at its final destination. The body is not buried but is placed in a cave on a cliff. The body eventually deteriorates and only the bones are left behind. Tau-Taus or hand carved wooden effigies resembling the deceased are placed at the edge of the cave where the
deceased remains lie. These effigies can be easily seen if you look up to cliffs which encase the burial caves.
If the deceased is a child who died before teething, the body is first wrapped in cloth and then put into a young tree which has had an opening carved into the trunk. As
time passes the dead child and the tree become one and the child lives on through the tree.
Before we undertake our travels, most of us generally assume that everyone has the same priorities as we do. We presume that life takes precedence over death and that we celebrate weddings and mourn at funerals. But in fact even this presumption is wrong and we should not assume that other cultures hold the same views we do nor should we assume that because their practices are different they are wrong or any less civilized than our own.
Travel with an observing eye and an open mind informs us that we should be less judgmental and understand that what appears odd or barbaric to our sensibilities may have comforted other peoples for centuries.
The more we travel the more tolerant and understanding we inevitably become. I beat this drum every time I write about traveling. Step away from your comfort zone. Five-star resorts are, of course, great luxuries but there is a vast world beyond the fancy resorts that are built in exotic places to shield us from the very reason we should be traveling to these locations.
Incredibly on September 29, 2018, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit Palu in Sulawesi triggering a tidal wave 18-feet high which struck the city of 300,000 without warning. Even our treasured destinations are fragile.