Gathering around the Coffin


SYNOPSIS:  About the third day of the funerary ceremony. 

The ground was torn from the feet of over 2000 people and the hoofs of hundreds of animals.  And it was muddy from two nights of rain.  A few people trickled into the compound where the family had gathered around the coffin of the deceased mother.

This was day three of the funeral ceremony.  It was quiet and attended by only about 200 people, the extended family of the deceased.  I was welcomed back to observe but I was the only tourist.  No more spectacles.  Just a day of prayer and song. 

Once again, after offering a carton of cigarettes to the hostess, I was placed in the shelter of the rice barn right at the center of the events.  It was picture taking time. 

The family gathered and the photographer on staff who had captured the full ceremony from day one put himself into position.  But a brawl broke out!  Some of the grandchildren had started to take selfies with the coffin and an older sibling began to yell, pushing over the image of the mother and creating a ruckus.  He was upset about the picture-taking spectacle.  This was the last time they would be in the presence of their grandmother, he cried out.  It was time to realize the gravity of the situation. 

This quieted things down.  The cheery selfies stopped.  Pictures of the entire family were taken and a female minister started a rather lengthy two-hour sermon.  Thankfully, it was interrupted by various groups who were called to the front to sing.  Some seemed obvious amateurs and family members.  But once in a while a professional choir was called to the front who performed hauntingly beautiful hymns accompanied by an electric piano.

The people in attendance had been given text sheets to sing various songs as well.  And as church hymns go, by the second verse I was usually able sing along which earned me the gratitude and joy of one of my barn neighbors, a relative, who in lieu of words just kept holding my hand between her palms smiling at me. 

If I had not seen it with my own eyes two days earlier, I would not have believed that the slaughter then and the prayers now were performed by the same people as part of one and the same funeral.  They were worlds apart.  For me, they were a big part of making peace with all the bloodshed.  And as it happens with any funeral I have ever attended I remembered those I had lost over the years myself.  The 30th anniversary of my father’s death is just around the corner. 

When the time of the final goodbye came, the young men of the family were asked to carry the coffins of mother and son, and for the older men to follow.  As a foreigner, I was invited to go with the men.  They balanced the coffins on their shoulders and shortly into their walk broke out into a wild dance which seemed to put the coffin into the precarious situation of tumbling into the mud at any given moment.  But skillfully, the men always caught it, only to throw it up and juggle it all around all over again.  It seemed to be part of the program.

What posed a challenge, was the steep decline down the hill that lead to their funeral home.  From the slaughter, the grass had been trampled down and the rain had done the rest to turn this into a slippery, nearly unmanageable slope.  But they did manage. 

The door to the funerary home was opened and several men jumped inside, taking in the coffins.  After the last man was out, just a few more glimpses into house and just a few final photos were allowed before the seal was put back on. 

The family now would gather for food and talk, but even though I would have been welcome to stay, I left. 

Christianity and Animism meet in these three days of celebrating somebody’s life like at no other event.  The Dutch rooted out most other practices.  This one survived.  How a predominantly Islamic government — which as part of their doctrine would consider pigs among the most unclean animals — tolerates this practice is phenomenal.   But how in this day and age people like Yussuf will continue to survive the monetary demands of these practices is anyone’s question. 

Who benefits from this?  If you would ask the Torajans, they would have no doubt:  the dead, and forever. 

I hope they are right.