This piece is by Sophia Goldberg, a member of One Blue Wall’s selections team.
Makula’ – A Sick Person.
Caitlin Doughty, a funeral director in Los Angeles, says that one of the most common questions she is asked is what someone’s loved one would look like years after their death. Doughty is unable to answer the question, as decomposition depends on many conditions. Soil, climate, whether or not the body was embalmed, and so on. The residents of Tana Toraja, a small region in Indonesia, know exactly what their family members look like. Family members are kept in the house days, weeks, even years after death. Even after bodies are laid in their graves, families gather and exhume the corpse to pay it respect in an annual ceremony. Families will bring the deceased fresh clothes, new burial shrouds, and take family photos.
In Torajan culture, death is not a harsh divide like it is in the West. Death is thought of as a thin veil. A person’s soul stays long after their body has stopped working. The person is considered only makula’, sick, until their funeral. Until the funeral, the body is never left alone. Family visit the body, talk to it, and bring it food. The body is dressed in the morning and tucked in at night.
One of the biggest anxieties surrounding death in Western culture is the fear of being forgotten. In Tana Toraja, no one is forgotten. Although the idea of being so close to a dead body may seem frightening and unnatural to people in the West, the experience can be profoundly meaningful to both the grieving and to people concerned about their own death.
Although this extreme closeness may not be for you, it is still a reminder to consider how we can be more involved with our dead. The current system in America of simply buying a casket is not enough to help process grief. Many cemeteries don’t even let mourners witness the casket being covered, preferring the area empty so they can use heavy machinery to quickly fill the grave with dirt. We can be more involved in the process of burying our loved ones than just purchasing items. Ask questions about what will happen to you and your loved ones when you die. Talk about what you would want to happen. Insist on doing what you need to properly grieve.