Academic journal article Oceania

Death and the Sacrifice of Signs: 'Measuring' the Dead in Tana Toraja

Academic journal article Oceania

Death and the Sacrifice of Signs: 'Measuring' the Dead in Tana Toraja

Article excerpt


Suggesting the existence of an intrinsic connection between sacrifice and embodiment, this article considers the meaning and symbolism of traditional mortuary rituals among the Sa'dan Toraja of Indonesia. Manifesting different ways of being, these rituals engender different ways of dying. Focusing on the sacrificial patterns of their engenderment, I discuss these differences and the way in which they are thought to 'emerge from the body'.

Starting with Mauss's (1979; orig. 1936) seminal article on 'body techniques' which, to echo Michel Feher, 'mingle physical capacities and mental mechanisms to form a body adapted to circumstances' (1989:11), much has been written about the relationship between embodiment and society -- for instance, 'the body of a charismatic citizen or of a visionary monk, a mirror image of the world or a reflection of the spirit' (ibid.). Throughout this writing, however, although embodiment (i.e., the experience and/or perception of 'having', 'being in' or even 'being' a body) has been shown to be anything but constant or universal, the substantive foundation of the empirical human body has rarely been questioned. Beyond the relativity of embodiment, as Frank puts it, 'there is a flesh which is formed in the womb, transfigured (for better or worse) in its life, dies and decomposes' (1991:49). Thus, despite the adventures of its apperception, 'corporeality remains an obdurate fact' (ibid.).

Mirroring the irreducibility of this 'fact', indigenous theories of physiology (including the associated ritual technologies of birth, death, and curing) are mostly considered as contextually bound rationalizations which 'account satisfactorily for the facts that meet the eye' (Heritier-Auge 1989:160). Indeed, in 'the form of more or less elaborate theories of the person', they are thought to be aimed 'at presenting a coherent, well-ordered world image, fraught with meaning and able to account for its existence and reproduction' (ibid.). Hence, what is produced at the intersection of the universal obduracy of corporeality and the relativity of human perception is an analysis of the body's representations rather than the modes of its construction (see Feher 1989). The supposed universality of the natural body leads to an inevitable contrast between scientific theory and theories based on 'contextually bound rationalizations', surreptitiously introducing the classic dichotomy of nature and culture. In other wo rds, it obscures the exciting possibility that the body itself (i.e., its corporeality) 'may actually have a history' (Bynum 1989:171;cf.Laqueur 1990).

Bynum's suggestion, of course, is intimately linked with the particularities of her own research into female spirituality in the later Middle Ages, a spirituality characterized by bizarre bodily occurences like stigmata, incorruptibility of the cadaver in death, mystical lactations and pregnancies, strange visions, and so on. Although during my fieldwork among the Sa'dan Toraja [1] of South Sulawesi (Indonesia) I came across a multitude of stories about similar occurrences and their visible 'signs' (tanda), this article does not directly concern these narratives or their immediate implications. It is rather about death and the sacrifices of the mortuary ritual. For the Sa'dan Toraja, mortuary sacrifices are intimately linked with the body of the deceased. Like the bodily occurrences articulated in Bynum's argument, they can be seen as reflecting different forms of substantive embodiment and divergent somatic destinies. To phrase it somewhat differently, they themselves constitute 'bodily signs' (tanda kale) -- that is, signs of distinct physiologies and dissimilar corporeal patterns.

The sacrificial articulation of these signs is the focus of this article. Using information from Buntao', a community in the eastern part of Tana Toraja, [2] I shall describe the ritual process, catalogue the major sequences of mortuary rites and explain the link between the different sacrificial imperatives and the body of the deceased. …

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