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

1 / 2
Mourners clad in black wore face masks in compliance with the health protocol. (Lisa Saba Palloan)
2 / 2
A relative mourns on the deceased's coffin. (Lisa Saba Palloan)
Short Url
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.


Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

Updated 4 min 1 sec ago

Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

  • Officials say a majority are under lockdown or afraid to perform last rites

NEW DELHI: Pratamesh Walavalker was always proud of living in a well-connected area with neighbors and relatives who look out for each other.

However, the resident of Dombivali East, nearly 70 kilometers from India’s financial capital Mumbai, experienced a harsh reality check on Thursday.

None of his neighbors or more than 100 relatives responded to his calls for help when his 57-year-old father died of coronavirus-related complications.

Help, he said, finally arrived in the form of Iqbal Mamdani and his group of Muslim volunteers, who took his father’s body to a cremation ground for his last rites.

“No one came to our help, not even my close neighbor. There is so much panic among people about COVID-19 that our own don’t come near us. The Muslim volunteers helped us in this hour of crisis,” Walavalker, 28, told Arab News.

That same night, 50-year-old Mamdani and his group of volunteers helped another family perform the last rites of an 80-year-old Hindu woman who had also fallen victim to the disease.

The group was formed in late March after a local civic body said: “All dead bodies of COVID-19 patients should be cremated at the nearest crematorium irrespective of religion.”

After reports of a Muslim man being cremated in the Malwani area of the city angered the community, several members met with the authorities and managed to revise the order.

Since then, Mamdani said members of Mumbai’s Bada Qabrastan — the largest cemetery in the city — have extended their services to other communities as well.

“We get calls from different hospitals and people, and they seek our help in taking bodies to their final resting place. We decided to help the victims at this hour of crisis when there was chaos and panic in the city with the number of coronavirus cases increasing every day,” he told Arab News.

So far, the group has buried 450 Muslim bodies and cremated over 250 Hindu bodies.

He said their efforts would have been impossible without the Jama Masjid Trust, which oversees the Bada Qabrastan.

“On our request, the government allowed us to bury the dead bodies in seven burial grounds in the city,” he said.

There was one problem, however.

“No one was willing to come forward to collect dead bodies from the hospital and bring them to the cemetery,” Mamdani said.

Through word of mouth, Mamdani said seven Muslim volunteers quickly offered to help out.

The first challenge the group faced was a lack of ambulances, due to a shortage in supply as a result of the pandemic.

At first, they tried renting a private ambulance, “but the owner would not rent their vehicles for carrying COVID-19 victims,” Mamdani said.

With no other option left, the group decided to pool their resources and buy abandoned ambulances.

Mamdani said: “We managed to get 10 such vehicles from different parts of the city. With the help of mechanics and other resources, within eight days we managed to roll out the ambulances on the road.”

When the volunteers began gathering Muslim bodies from the hospital, they realized that several Hindu bodies had been left unclaimed, as their relatives “were too scared to perform the last rites.”

Mamdani said another factor behind unclaimed Hindu bodies was quarantine. The lockdown forced relatives to stay indoors and avoid the cremation grounds.

Experts have praised the efforts of the group.

“The Muslim volunteers have been really great support. They started working at a time when there was total chaos and panic in Mumbai,” Dr. Sulbha Sadaphule of Cooper Hospital, Mumbai, told Arab News.

Of the 820,000 COVID-19 cases in India, 100,000 are in Mumbai, where around 5,500 people have lost their lives from the nationwide fatality count of around 22,500.

“The morgue was overflowing with bodies because of a lack of ambulances and staff. When hospital staff and health workers were short in numbers they were helping us and the people,” added Dr. Sadaphule.

Mamdani said they would not have done it any other way.

“India is a country of religious harmony and we believe there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion. With this motto we decided to perform the last rites on behalf of the Hindu families with the support of the police and relatives,” he said.