Last Goodbyes


Sometimes death isn't the end

Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — bury their dead rather immediately.  In the growing secular world, many people choose to be cremated.  However, many options exist outside of these, as is evidenced by different funeral traditions and attitudes towards death around the world.
On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, the Torajan people have a special relationship with death.  A dead person who is still home with family is not dead, just makula’, just sick.  Shortly after passing, corpses are treated with formaldehyde so that they do not putrify.  Then, they are lovingly fed, washed, and spoken to.  While the poor can usually only justify keeping the dead for a few weeks before the funeral ceremony, it is a symbol of wealth and power to sustain a years-long relationship with the slowly mummifying corpse as family members from around the world are gathered for the eventual celebratory funeral ceremony.  At the funeral, the family sacrifices as many water buffalo as they can afford (one journalist notes that 24 seems to be the minimum) in order to ensure a quick journey to the afterlife after such a slow passing away from this realm.
That’s not the end.  Every few years, they visit their ancestral tombs for a ma’nene or second funeral.  They exhume their dead relatives and share new stories and memories.  The corpse’s clothes are changed and family pictures are snapped.  The practices on Sulawesi may seem bizarre, and yet it’s common in the Western world for people to pray to their dead ancestors, speak to them through those mechanisms, and even imagine that they’ve been visited by ghostly forms.  Torajans just happen to form a relationships with the bodies of the dead rather than the souls.
In Tibet, people practice celestial burials.  Inhumation space is scarce all over the world, but especially in the rocky mountains of Tibet.  Wood is a valuable resource, as fires are necessary for heat and cooking.  Western notions of burial and cremation are not particularly feasible in this part of the world.  Luckily, their local tradition doesn’t require too many ingredients — just a saw, some barley flour, and yak butter. 
The bodies of the dead are dismembered and defleshed by a rogyapa or “body breaker.”  The meat is pounded with a mallet into a mixture of the butter and flour to entice the local Himalayan griffon vultures, meat-eating birds with 9-foot wingspans.  The less tasty parts of the body are laid out first while the tender cuts are withheld so that the vultures don’t cut and run after grabbing the tastiest bits of human.  Once the body has been completely returned to nature, the funeral is complete.  The vast majority of Tibetans choose to be disposed of in this way.
Not to mention the fact that you can get ashes turned into a synthetic gemstone, a vinyl record, or a tree!  All of which don’t contribute towards the unfortunate fact that the Abrahamic religions’ full-body-burial traditions have led to rapidly decreasing cemetery real estate on our finite little planet.
With so many exciting options out there, it’s hard to imagine that everyone’s sticking with the same old formulae and family plots.  Yawn!
-Rachel Hsu