It was a winding 8-hour bus ride on cliff-hugging roads to get from Makassar, a port town in Sulawesi, to Rantepao. It was in this dusty town where I would be meeting the people of Toraja for the first time. I had heard about this indigenous tribe known for their elaborate funeral rites and was intrigued by their way of life and mostly, how they celebrated death.
Meeting the Torajan people
Coming from a western culture where emphasis is placed on youth and vitality, topics such as death are heavily avoided. Torajans on the other hand, embody a very different approach. They recognize death as an essential part of life, that from the moment someone is born they are already making preparations for their passing. It could be said that the Torajans live to die.
Torajan Death Rituals
Renowned for their burial sites that are carved into rocky cliffs, Toraja funeral rites are important social events, usually attended by hundreds (and sometimes over a thousand) people and can last up to a week. Now it might sound morbid, to be already preparing for someone’s burial long before their time, but these death rituals are actually the biggest celebrations of life.
Death Perfection Ceremony
The official name for the funeral ceremony is called Rambu (also known as the Death Perfection ceremony) and is usually carried out in a field where temporary bamboo structures are erected so that friends and family can witness the festivities. Buffalos who are considered sacred animals are believed to accompany the deceased to the after-life and are ritually sacrificed before they are prepared as part of the death feast.
The Torajans burial rituals stood in stark contrast to how we in the western world deal with someone’s passing. Usually funerals are a sombre experience that take place within a day where the grieving period is expected to be short. While, I have to admit that I found having a funeral that involved hundreds of people and ritual sacrificing of animals to be not my cup of tea, there was something about the Torajans that left a long-lasting impression on me.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Receiving exposure to the Torajans way of life reminded me of Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, where he speaks about living life with the end in sight. In one of his exercises, he invites the reader to close their eyes and to imagine attending their own funeral where all their loved ones have gathered together. He then asks the reader to imagine what their eulogy would be. What would they want others to say about them? Which leads Covey to encourage his reader to be clear on how they would want to be remembered so that they can direct their life towards that goal.
“The begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction”. – Stephen Covey
So often we prefer not to think about death as it makes us uncomfortable. In some scientific circles, death is seen as a evolutionary flaw that eventually can be hacked and solved. It is as if we have become obsessed with the quest for immortality and this need to prolong life through supplements and medicine.
Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, teaches that if we cease to fear death, we can live a nobler and more virtuous life and states in How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life
“What’s to be feared in returning where you came from? He lives badly who does not know how to die well…. [D]ying fearfully, often, is itself a cause of death…. He who fears death will never do anything to help the living. But he who knows that this was decreed the moment he was conceived will live by principle.”- Seneca c. 4BC – 65AD)
Living with Intention
Whether one agrees with the Torajans that death is something to be celebrated or one prefers to imagine that one day we will be able to hack death, there is still something that can be gained by embracing our mortality. For it allows us to live the present moment with a richer fullness. An intentional act of living the life we want based on how we wished to be remembered.