Words of Intimacy: Re-Membering the Dead in Buntao'

By Tsintjilonis, Dimitri | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Words of Intimacy: Re-Membering the Dead in Buntao'


Tsintjilonis, Dimitri, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Among the Sa'dan Toraja (1) of Indonesia, as elsewhere in insular Southeast Asia (see Fox 1987: 526), humankind is not believed to have a single origin or source of being. The indigenous notion of humanity (tau, 'people') comprises a multiplicity of heterogeneous manifestations: while some humans are described as ripe, others are depicted as raw, soft, wet, and even empty (see Tsintjilonis 1997). As Fox has expressed it, referring to the insular societies of Southeast Asia, 'although there exists an ultimate ground of identity to all manifestations of life, the traditional point of view makes no assumption of identity or equality among particular manifestations' (1987: 524). Focusing on the tradition of the Sa'dan Toraja as a particular instance of such a 'point of view', this article is concerned with a distinct aspect of this lack of identity or equality. More specifically, Toraja do not conceptualize 'humanity' as a uniform or evenly shared condition, and so different 'kinds' of people are said to die in different ways. To echo the evocative language of the local priests: some 'fall like the setting sun', others 'turn hazy in the mist', 'go off like overripe fruit', 'wither like plants', even 'dissolve like dampened sugar'. The significance of these descriptions stems from their intimate link with distinct combinations of sacrificial offerings, and the way in which these offerings are thought to embody and manifest the 'kind' (rupa) of the deceased. Thus, reproducing familiar Austronesian themes like spiritual differentiation and hierarchy (see Fox 1987), the mortuary rites of the Toraja manifest human disparity and intrinsic inequality.

Crucially, the imperative behind the sacrificial articulation of this disparity (that is, the need to determine and perform the correct mortuary sacrifices) is depicted by my Toraja friends and informants as emerging from a distinctive relationship between the living and the dead. This relationship, which they usually describe in terms of 'intimacy' (misa' penaa, '[sharing] one breath'), (2) is the focus of the present article: what exactly does it involve and how can we explain its significance? Furthermore, as this intimacy is thought to allow the living to 'feel' (sa'ding) and 'think' (ma'tangnga') the 'desires of the dead' (kamoiranna to mate), (3) it bears witness to an interjacency between life and death which is strikingly at odds with anthropologists' conventional assumptions about the distinctions between them. In other words, this article is also about the separation between life and death, and the need to 'listen well' (see Overing & Passes 2000: 11) both to the living and the dead. Above all, as 'sharing one breath' is intrinsically associated with 'remembering the dead' (nakilalai to mate), (4) it is about the connection between death and memory--a connection which, embedded in the relationship of intimacy, allows the living to remember the dead in the form of the appropriate mortuary sacrifices.

I emphasize this connection between death and memory because it appears to differentiate my ethnographic information from that of other ethnographers whose accounts link the efficacy of mortuary ritual with forgetting. Among the Sabarl of New Guinea, for instance, forgetting or 'finishing the memory' of the dead is the focus of the mortuary ritual (Battaglia 1992). In a similar fashion, among the Jivaro of Amazonia, the fate of the dead is perceived as a 'mutilation' of memory (Taylor 1996). In these cases, as Battaglia puts it, we are dealing with a 'willed transformation of memory' (1992: 14) which is ultimately the concern of the living rather than the dead. In fact, from the Hubeer of Southern Somalia (Helander 1988) to the Khasi of India (Arhem 1988), the sacrificial logic of mortuary rites has been linked with such a transformation in a variety of ways (see Bloch 1988: 18-26). However, rather than forgetting, the Sa'dan Toraja render the efficacy of their mortuary rituals in terms of remembering. …

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