Sumba's Good Death

Date: Sun Apr 07 1991 - 06:23:00 EDT

Source: Reuter. Date: 7 Apr 91. Story Type: Feature. Original
Language: English. Dateline: Anakalang, Sumba. Byline:
Elizabeth Pisani. Text: Abridged. Brief Remark: Forwarded.


    "Come in and meet my grandmother," grins a young man to a
passing stranger.
    Squinting into the gloom of a bamboo house from the tropical
glare outside, the visitor sees nothing but what looks like a bag
of laundry bundled on a bamboo chair.
    The young man fiddles with the top of the bundle, peeling back
a handkerchief to reveal a face, wizened like a shrunken apple.
"My grandmother. She died yesterday," he smiles.
    To the people of Sumba, an island on the southern rim of the
Indonesian chain, there is nothing macabre about death. It is seen
rather as the final triumph of life, an excuse for endless
feasting and financially crippling rituals.
    For three days, the old lady would sit in her specially made
bamboo chair under a poster of Jesus, a reminder of the family's
    "We washed her with leaves so she won't smell for a while,"
says the dutiful grandson.
    Outside on the veranda, family and friends gathered, beating
gongs, gossiping, playing chess and smiling the vermilion
gap-toothed smiles of seasoned betel nut chewers.
    On the day of the funeral the sickly-sweet smell of rotting
flesh wafted over the fire that burned before the body. The old
lady was ready for the grave.
    And her grave was ready for her. By Sumba standards it was
extremely modest -- a stone box about one cubic metre (36 cubic
feet) with an all-important covering gravestone that took only
about 20 men to shift.
    A few kilometres (miles) down the road is one of the island's
most splendid graves: an eight-tonne tombstone for a local worthy
that took thousands of men a year to drag up from the quarry in
    Stonedraggers were rewarded with feasting; at least one
buffalo was slaughtered every day of the journey, locals said.
    Graves can be prepared for elderly or ailing people. "But you
have to be careful. If you make a grave wait too long it will cry
out for a body," said a village elder.
    That can be avoided, he said, by filling a waiting grave with
an old corpse.
    Children can't be buried with their parents but they can share
a grave with their grandparents and often several generations are
piled into the same vault.
    Bodies are often shifted years after death to grander graves
built by descendants who have made good.
    The old lady, for instance, was accompanied to her new grave
by another parcel of bones wrapped in a sarong -- her husband who
had spent the past five years in a poor grave in a hill village.
    Relatives beat gongs and wailed over the bodies before tipping
them unceremoniously into the grave.
    A bucket of buffalo dung was smeared around the rim "to stop
the rotting smell escaping" and a priest read Christian prayers
over a bullhorn.
    Then a passer-by was asked to slit the jugular of a calf, a
token sacrifice. The real funeral party would be in five days.
    The Indonesian government, appalled by the systematic
destruction of wealth in Sumba, in 1987 limited the slaughter of
buffalo to five per funeral and completely outlawed other feasts
of honour in which thousands of beasts were killed.
    "Our programme for life is feasting for a new sacred house,
for honour and for death. We think of them the way other people
think of education, farming and health," said the village elder.
    Attracted by the peaked roofs of a village of sacred houses
which loom like a coven of witches hats from a forested hill-top
in another part of the island, visitors stumble into a
    The crunching of bones and tearing of flesh drown the sound of
the gong orchestra as the statutory five buffalos are slaughtered
and divided up for guests, the contents of their stomachs left
steaming on fresh palm leaves.
    "Only five. It's really too sad. She was a great lady and if
it weren't for the government we would honour her with dozens of
buffalo," the village head said of the deceased, the wife of a
former spiritual head of the remote Kodi district.
    She had been buried some days earlier with her husband in a
tomb covered with white bathroom tiles.
    "The goverment says we should just have the plain stone like
before because its better for tourism but we don't care about
that. These were not ordinary people. Why should they have an
ordinary grave?" said the village head.
    The gravestone, straight from the quarry before dragging or
tiles, cost 10 of the best buffalo. "That's about four million
rupiah (2,000 dollars) in your money," explained another local.
    Or four years' income for an average Indonesian, more for
villagers in this dry and forgotten part of the country.
    "But worth every penny," said the elder. "There's nothing in
life like a good death."