Living with the dead: Indonesia’s Torajans downsize burials amid pandemic

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Mourners clad in black wore face masks in compliance with the health protocol. (Lisa Saba Palloan)
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A relative mourns on the deceased's coffin. (Lisa Saba Palloan)
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Updated 21 June 2020

Living with the dead: Indonesia’s Torajans downsize burials amid pandemic

  • The Torajas inhabit two administrative areas — the North Toraja and Tana Toraja regencies — in the South Sulawesi province
  • A burial ceremony is central to the lives of the Toraja ethnic group

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.


UK relatives of Daesh ‘Beatles’ victims relieved as trial nears

Updated 23 September 2020

UK relatives of Daesh ‘Beatles’ victims relieved as trial nears

  • The evidence regarding El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey was transferred to Washington immediately after Tuesday’s court ruling
  • The pair, who have been stripped of UK citizenship, are in the custody of US forces in Iraq

LONDON: Relatives of two Britons killed by a Daesh cell on Wednesday welcomed a breakthrough that advances the US trial of two Londoners accused of their brutal deaths.
The families of Alan Henning and David Haines said a ruling by the London High Court permitting the UK government to share evidence with US authorities about the suspects was a “huge result for us.”
“We have only ever wanted to see these two men being held accountable and brought to justice through a fair trial for their alleged actions,” they said in a statement released by the charity Hostage International.
The evidence regarding El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey was transferred to Washington immediately after Tuesday’s court ruling.
The pair, who have been stripped of UK citizenship, are in the custody of US forces in Iraq.
Kotey and Elsheikh’s four-member cell was dubbed “the Beatles” by their captives due to their English accents. They are accused of torturing and killing victims, including by beheading, and Daesh released videos of the deaths for propaganda purposes.
A two-year legal impasse concerning the suspects was broken last month when Attorney General Bill Barr said they would be spared execution if convicted after trial in the United States.
The United States wants to try them for the murder of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid worker Peter Kassig, during 2014-2015.
Taxi driver Henning and former aircraft engineer Haines, who had both gone to Syria to do aid work, were beheaded in 2014.
Another of the cell’s alleged victims was British photojournalist John Cantlie, who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and remains missing.
Cantlie’s sister Jessica Pocock told of the relatives’ intense frustration at the long legal wait.
“At times we felt absolutely desperate as to whether the legal system was ever going to be able to bring these two to justice — wherever they may be,” she told BBC radio.
“That was always terribly important to us to have a proper, fair trial. The families need nothing less than a fair trial,” she said.
The US Department of Justice welcomed the court ruling and expressed gratitude to Britain for transferring the evidence, although a trial date has yet to be set.