When it seems like we are stuck with the same old same old ways, it’s good to find that not far to our north we have traditions that are still being practiced and getting some attention.
In this story: What the extraordinary funeral rituals of Tana Toraja and Trunyan in Indonesia can teach us about living a better life, by Smriti Daniel (ABC RN, for Return Ticket, Sat 14 May 2022) we get to learn about another culture that doesn’t hide from death.
A new definition of death
It is no surprise that this place drew in Paul Koudounaris, a photographer with a PhD in art history and three books – The Empire of Death, Heavenly Bodies and Memento Mori – under his belt.
Koudounaris has many years of experience documenting sacred human remains as well as photographing buildings and vaults as well as smaller rooms and even wells and containers where human remains are stored.
In places like Trunyan, he sees the boundaries between the dead and the living stretch and blur. The space between is where he goes to grasp what death actually means.
“I finally just understood death as a border between two potential socialised groups, the living and the dead,” he explains.
In much of the Western world, in which he includes Australia, the United States and most of Europe, Koudounaris sees many “hard”, wall-like boundaries. To try to transgress that wall, to interact with the dead, is considered perverse or unnatural.
“The funny thing about that is if you look cross-culturally and if you look historically, it’s always been the exact opposite,” he says.
“If you look at most cultures in the world still to this day outside the West, if you look at the way Europe used to be, if you look at most ancient cultures, you’ll find that they always had a very soft boundary.
“The living and the dead were encouraged to interact. That’s what we’re seeing in Indonesia, for instance; we’re seeing this invitation to cross the border to interact with these people who have passed on.”
A family feeling
This soft boundary is also evident in Tana Toraja, in the Indonesian province of South Sulawesi.
The first time he visited the region in 2016, photojournalist Putu Sayoga took an eight-hour bus ride to the small town of Rantepao, the capital of North Toraja, before switching to a motorbike for the last hour and a half.
Says Koudounaris: “We’ve invented this stigma around death – that we have to be very formal around the dead – but they [the locals] don’t necessarily see it that way. They enjoy the interaction and they like seeing us interact as well. It is just a very different relationship.”
Funerals comfort the living
Koudounaris hasn’t spent any time planning his own funeral — he believes those are meant to comfort the living.
Read the full story here … What funeral rituals can teach us