Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Strange Burials in the Third World

     There are seemingly infinite ways to honor ancestors; traveling in the Third World enables the tourist to observe a wide variety of funerary rites and even to occasionally participate in them. I am always amazed at how diverse man's accommodation can be to life's circumstances and to varied cultural beliefs about the nature of the world. Burials are an excellent example of such adaptations. I remember when my first encounter with exotic differences in this custom took place. I was in a Zoroastrian Temple in Mumbai, India. A guide pointed out a tower near the temple and explained that the Zoroastrian burial custom was to lay the corpse of the deceased person out in the open at the top of the tower in order that it be consumed by elements of nature.  We learned that the practitioners of this faith believe that the body becomes impure once the person has died and must not be permitted to contaminate the earth so they expose the body to the sun and to the birds of prey to be returned to nature. As one travels through the less known parts of the world, similarities between customs and beliefs in different and seemingly unrelated places turn up surprisingly. It was many years later on the island of Bali that we encountered an almost identical custom among the early settlers of that island. The Bali Agha, the oldest cultural group there, do virtually the same thing except that the bodies are laid out on the ground and covered with light cloths in order that they be reabsorbed into the earth from which they came. We were able to visit the Bali Agha cemetery in one of the small communities where they live but access was denied to the Zoroastrian Towers. Of course, the rest of the Balinese also observe burial practices which are colorful and interesting and distinctive, filled with dance and music, so those are exceptional as well. One has several choices on that little island alone.

     I have written earlier about the amazing funeral customs of some of the other peoples of Indonesia. The Toraja who live in the central part of the island of Sulawesi conduct perhaps the most elaborate of these ceremonies. If a person is important and/or especially wealthy, at death he or she is placed in a casket and buried in the ground much as one does in most of the world. The family saves its money for a clearly more important subsequent event, however, to which all of the townspeople and the deceased's family and friends and acquaintances are invited. The grand ritual occurs some year or two later. The ceremony may involve hundreds or more visitors from other islands and from neighboring towns who are provided  for in tents, served all kinds of food, and for whom many animals are sacrificed, etc. The expenses incurred by such grand ventures have bankrupted some families and these events are strongly discouraged by the authorities. They go on nonetheless.

     In Tana Toraja (the land of the heavenly kings) where these elaborate ceremonies are held, this event includes the placing of a carved wooden effigy of the deceased on the side of a cave in a lovely rice field covered valley to stand alongside equivalent dignitaries. These effigies are tended by the living relatives of the deceased including a regular changing of the dress on the effigy. The corpses are then interred in the caves behind each of these figures. Walking through that valley is quite a sight. In other places in Indonesia, the grand ceremony is followed by placing the coffin into a finely constructed miniature home that is a replica of those the people live in. Thus, the ancestors of the people have equal comfort in their afterlife. I have had the good fortune to be an honored guest at each kind of ceremony just because I was there to attend. My presence apparently lent additional gravity and importance to the event so I was welcomed with open arms.

     When I visited a small community of Sun Worshippers on the island of New Guinea, I saw another curious version of dealing with dead ancestors. There, on a series of shelves right in the middle of the tiny village, stood skulls of ancestors covering several generations. They had been decorated in the same fashion as the residents of the village do for themselves when they paint their faces to participate in joyful ceremonies. So the skulls are representations of those who lived earlier in the village. Many people in the Third World regard deceased relatives as the living dead, spirits that protect them from on high in the afterlife or guide them in their daily activities. They take care of these spirits out of respect but also out of fear that they could be harmed by them. 

     On the banks of the holy Ganges River in Varanasi, India, one sees many examples of the much more common crematory ceremonies for the dead. But the Hindus start early on these sacred shores. They bring their dying relatives to the riverside, construct pyres or use the ones that stand there and tend their loved ones as one might do in a hospice. After death occurs, the body is placed on the pyre and cremated with the appropriate ceremonial prayers and rituals. This is something many tourists are familiar with. Less well known is something I came across in Ghana in Western Africa. I was introduced to a common variation of burial that exists there- coffins are often carved to represent something of the person's life or the aspirations of the deceased. I have seen airplanes, bibles, books, race cars and other such items created by local carvers for the deceased to spend their eternity in. While I have surely not seen the full range of ceremonies that man has created to honor the dead, I consider myself fortunate to have experienced such a wide range of burial practices in my journeys. Such customs make travel in the Third World captivating, especially because they are so accessible to visitors who are interested in them. Not only can one observe what happens but often the visitor is deemed to underscore and augment the import of the ceremony. Doing well by doing good, I guess.

Boy in Market, Kashgar, China

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