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Start the most difficult conversation American isn’t having- the conversation about our end of life preferences

Keeping The Dead Among Us

One Indonesian culture could offer new perspective on the end of life in America

When members of the Toraja ethnic group of eastern Indonesia tell you the dead live among them, they don’t mean that figuratively.

Corpses of loved ones often remain in households for up to two years until a traditional funeral can be held, and in the interim, family members symbolically feed and bathe the body of the deceased.

Kelli Swazey, a cultural anthropologist at Indonesia’s Gadjah Mada University and wife of an ethnic Torajan, told an audience gathered at the TEDMED 2013 conference in Washington, D.C. that a careful examination of her husband’s native culture has reshaped her views on death and could be helpful in allaying common American fears surrounding the end of life.

“Death is the most visible and remarkable aspect of the Torajan landscape,” Swazey says, describing the typical sight of one or more corpses in a Torajan home.

Funerals in this culture are elaborate, often stretching days or weeks. Because they are so expensive to carry out, the average family may need months or years to save the funds needed for such a ritual. In the time prior to funerals, bodies are placed in special rooms of a family’s household, symbolic of that family’s identity.

Swazey says this period of Torajan transition serves as a gentle way to come to terms with loss and to properly grieve.

“They socially recognize and culturally express what many of us feel to be true,” Swazey argues. “Our relationships with certain humans and their impact on our social reality does not cease with death.”

Image: Toraja burial site, Wikimedia Commons
Toraja burial site. Wikimedia Commons

As Americans see death as an unquestionable reality, Torajans view it as a part of a larger social genesis.  Dying is a process for the entire Torajan community, Swazey says, not solely a biological definition. Examining death this way removes some discomfort towards the physical realities of dying.

Because the bodies of the dead are revered and attended to for such lengthy periods, death is not only honored, but normalized in the Torajan culture, she says. Prolonging life in the face of debilitating illness is unheard of in this culture. Torajans view human life as having a pre-set length of thread that should be allowed to unspool to its natural end.

When illness strikes in our own western culture, Swayze says “we decide whether to stretch that thread of life based on emotional ties between us.”

As global citizens, she says we can’t afford to devalue knowledge because it emerges from a place so foreign and one that most Americans don’t understand. A cultural shift in perspective could be what is needed to transform end of life care and the frequent use of heroic, costly and often futile treatments for the dying.

“If we entertain and value other knowledge about life, including views on death, it can change the way we die, but more importantly, it could transform the way we live.”