The crowd built up along the street, shoulder to shoulder, building the pressure around me. Older children climbed up coconut trees for a better view. An opening formed and an elaborately decorated buffalo was pulled in. It was positioned in front of the house and the crowd formed a circle around it. Everything became still. The whole world radiated from where the buffalo stood. A man with a machete slowly walked up to its side. You are witnessing a funeral rite in a village in the remote island of Sumba, Indonesia.
You know by now that in Sumbanese society, ancestors are revered, and death means elevation from a mundane world to the realm of Marapu, a few steps closer to God in their ancient animist religion. Death is also when social standings are audited. Therefore, fortunes are spent on building grand tombs and organizing elaborate sacrifices and feasts during funerals.
Funerals are big news in Sumba. Everyone in the town talked about this to you. So you had arrived at the village early in the morning. The house of the deceased was painted green with a tin roof. Tents and plastic chairs had been set up on the lawns facing the house. Over two hundred people had gathered. The mother of the patriarch had died two days before; at the age of a hundred and two.
Inside the house, women in traditional skirts had greeted you by touching you nose to nose. They offered you sirih pinang or betel nut and stalk, customary in any social interaction in Sumba. The corpse lay in a coffin in the center of the room; covered in paper wreaths and layers of traditional fabric. Outside, musicians played gongs. As a foreigner, you were invited to sit on a grand sofa in front of the house alongside the chain-smoking village head and local priest. The smoke was too strong and you excused yourself to mingle with the crowd.
Morning turned to noon; nothing much was happening. Cookies, tea, and coffee were served. Children played games. Men played cards. The place became loud from all the gossip. There were smiles all round. This was not such a sad occasion after all.
Then suddenly, a lorry came. The host’s brother-in-law had arrived. The dozing gong players resumed their play. Men from the house rushed outside, welcoming their guests with mock war gestures: brandishing machetes, hops, and shrieks, “kakakakaka.” The newly-arrived women faced their female hosts and began dancing and touching nose to nose. Men went inside the lorry and pushed out a huge pink buffalo. Its horns and forehead were draped in red cloth.
By 2PM, the guests had received four pigs and seven buffaloes as gifts from various relatives and friends. The waiting for a climax continued. Some were dozing off. Buffaloes ruminated. The pigs meant for slaughter dug themselves comfortable pits. You became the center of attention. Mothers gave you their babies to hold and praise. The elderly came and blessed you, Children asked you to pose like a monkey. Everyone wanted a photo with you. They asked you the same questions for the hundredth time, “Where are you from? Are you married?”