JAKARTA: She had been dead for two years and was ready to be buried. After restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) were imposed in March, however, villagers in the La’bo village of the North Toraja regency in Sulawesi Island had no choice but to suspend the ceremony at the last minute.
On Saturday, they were finally able to hold a proper burial for the deceased village elder in a toned-down version of the elaborate, centuries-old ceremony known as Rambu Solo. The ceremony is central to the lives of the Toraja ethnic group, who are predominantly Christian but hold some animistic belief.
The Torajas inhabit two administrative areas — the North Toraja and Tana Toraja regencies — in the South Sulawesi province.
The burial ceremony is a large family affair involving the entire village and would last for up to a week in pre-COVID-19 times. It requires the sacrifice of dozens of buffaloes, following years of preparations, while the mummified corpse remains unburied in the family’s tongkonan, or a Toraja traditional house."
"We conducted the burial in compliance with health protocols by providing a hand washing station at the entrance. All mourners who came in had to wear face masks," Yohannes Limbong, a family representative, told Arab News.
The family was supposed to hold the ceremony on March 25, but it was suspended after the regency administration issued a stay-at-home order on March 23, advising citizens to hold off on any events involving large gatherings of people such as the Rambu Solo.
As of Saturday, the regency has not reported any COVID-19 deaths, but there were four confirmed cases, all of whom were travelers from virus-infected areas, including the provincial capital, Makassar, about 317 kilometers away.
The province has had 3,635 confirmed cases so far or about 8 percent of the 45,029 national caseloads. North Toraja, which has a population of 230,000, has lifted some restrictions in recent weeks after the region was considered an area where the risk of infections is low, allowing for religious events. Participants are nevertheless required to observe health protocols.
"There were less than 100 mourners who attended the ceremony. Normally, it would be double that amount or more," Lisa Saba Palloan, a local tourist guide, told Arab News.
Romba Marannu Sombolinggi, chairwoman of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago Toraya chapter, said that families who conducted the burials recently had to compromise between the obligation to perform a respectable send-off and compliance with social restrictions.
"A complete ceremony could take at least five days," she told Arab News.
"But we are obeying government regulations. There are some disappointments, but we understand the situation. We do not want people to be infected because we insist on having the long ceremony."
A few people had died who were under treatment but who had tested negative for COVID-19. They had to be buried in accordance with health protocols as soon as possible, which meant that the surviving family members could not keep the deceased embalmed in their houses as they would traditionally do.
"The families still performed the most essential rituals, including sacrificing at least a pig or a buffalo before the burial," Sombolinggi said.
"It is very much about the family’s dignity. They would otherwise experience social repercussions if they were not able to hold a presentable burial," she added.
Sombolinggi said that buffaloes are sacrificed to mark the symbolic passage to death since they would serve as the deceased’s "carriage" in the afterlife.
Her mother, who passed away in June 2019, is still kept mummified in the family’s tongkonan in the village of Lembang Madandan, in the Tana Toraja regency.
Her corpse is laid down with her face and the body facing east to the sunrise, which symbolizes life. For Torajans, the deceased are not dead yet; they are seen, rather, as sick. Family members still talk to them, bringing food and drinks and keeping essential items nearby.
"I greet her good morning or goodbye when I visit the family tongkonan. When my father died, he was mummified for three years before we held the Rambu Solo for him," Sombolinggi said.
The death is only considered official once the buffaloes are slaughtered in the ceremony. Family members must save up enough money to buy the animals, which can cost at least 20 million rupiahs each ($1,400).
"The extended family chips in to bear the costs together. It is a communal obligation that binds the Torajan people together," Palloan said.