Burial Urns and Different Cultures

Burial traditions differ greatly from culture to culture. What is typical in one culture for funeral traditions, another culture could do the exact opposite. For example, black is the traditional color of mourning here in the west, but in India, for those of the Hindu faith, casual white garb is worn to funerals. 

Burial Urn with flowers around it

Here in the west, funerals are somber, solemn, one-day affairs. People gather together wearing black, to remember and grieve the person who has passed. The service is held a mere week after someone dies, if not a few days after. Then, the person who has died is buried, or the body is cremated, and the remains are placed in a cremation urn, or a burial urn if the ashes are buried. 

Eastern Indonesia Funerals

In eastern Indonesia, their funeral traditions couldn’t be more different! While all cultures are similar in that each culture has ceremonies and practices for memorializing the dead, that’s where the similarities end. In contrast to our solemn services, and somber wakes, in Tana Toraja, funerals are “raucous affairs involving the whole village.”. Instead of a single day, these funerals go on for days to weeks. 

Another aspect that is wildly different from western funerals is that the funeral might take place years after the person has physically passed. The family saves up a lot of money for an opulent funeral, sometimes for years. Until the funeral, the deceased is laid out in a specific room in the home, and there they are ritually cared for, including being fed, bathed, and taken out on family outings. Eastern Indonesian homes are called tongkonan’s, and they represent the life cycle. Where a person was born is also where they die, or at least placed in after physically passing, and is where they pass on to their ancestral resting place. 

In Eastern Indonesia the physical death doesn’t have the same finality that it does here in the west. They remain full members of the family, and they are referred to as being sick or asleep, not dead, until after the funeral. Unlike here in the west, where the most interaction with the deceased might be from having a unique urn placed on the mantel, in eastern Indonesia, the person who passed remains a part of day-to-day life until their lavish funeral.

Rituals Before the Funeral

Before the funeral, the family performs a series of rituals that informs the community that a member of their family is passing over into the Puya or the afterlife. These rituals must be performed in front of the entire village and require the participation of the whole family. But until the family reaches an agreement and can throw a funeral that is deemed appropriate to the status of the person who passed, they are not considered fully dead. A person’s funeral is considered the most important social event of their life, even more so than a birth or a wedding. 

One aspect of the eastern Indonesian funeral is the sacrificial water buffalo that carries the dead person’s spirit into the afterlife. This is a display of wealth that honors the one who passed as well as their remaining family. The use of a sacrificial animal also represents their dependence on these animals for survival. While the water buffalo is the ultimate sacrificial animal, carrying the spirit of the beloved deceased onto their afterlife, many other animals such as chickens, and pigs are sacrificed leading up to the funeral. This is another way for the family to exhibit a show of wealth that reflects on the person who passed, in addition to the living family members. 

“The Toraja people believe the spirit of the dead lives among us, the living, looking out for us, blessing us,” says Eric Crystal Allo, the head of the Torajan branch of AMAN (customary law community of Indonesia). It is clear that the Toraja people deeply respect their dead.

The Ma’nene Ritual

One of their other rituals, performed after the funeral, is called the ma’nene, which is where corpses are removed from their tombs and visited by their families. This ritual to pay homage to their ancestors takes place in August, after the rice harvest. The families remove the corpses from their tombs and groom them with their favorite face powders and cologne, and dress them up in new clothing and jewelry. Most of the Toraja are Christians, so they may place gold crosses around the necks of their dead. If their grandmother loved lace, then they give grandma a new lace dress. They may even take the corpses for rides on scooters or give them a lit cigarette to smoke. This is a way for them to feel closer to their relatives who have passed on. 

Western Cremation Urns

One question that people often ask here in the west about the cremated remains of their loved one, “Is how do I display the cremation urn?”, or even “It is weird to display my unique urn in my home, or bedroom?”. Hopefully reading about the Toraja People and their ease with their dead will assuage any of these concerns. The only right way to grieve is the way that feels best to those left behind, and after reading about the ma’nene, perhaps you’ll feel more comfortable with displaying your beloved’s cremation urn in the way that feels right to you.