Print this page
Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A Tomb Worth Dying For: A Funeral in Sumba, Indonesia

Written by Shivaji Das
Rate this item
(8 votes)


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?” 


The pigs were brought out first. Machete blades struck and the pigs fell. Dry grass was spread over the dead pigs and lit. “Take our photos,” the young butchers invited, posing with the burning carcasses. The charred meat was sent to the kitchen.

Elaborate Funeral Rites Of Sumba

Soon, people queued up. It was time for lunch: tomato salad, pig soup, yellow rice, potato fries, mixed vegetables, and diluted syrup to drink. They pushed you to the front. Everyone wanted to serve you. You ended up with an unbelievably large meal.  

Soon after lunch; they brought out the first buffalo.  You can hardly breathe in anticipation. Desmond, the village head, whispers to you, “Only the most experienced are allowed to strike. What if the blow cuts the rope? The buffalo could kill us then. What if he hits the horns? So humiliating!” The man in charge gives a quick blow to the jugular. A bloody mist spurts out; then a waterfall. Men come forward, jumping and squealing, brandishing machetes, “ka ka ka ka ka”. The crowd becomes fluid; moving left, forward, backward, right, following the movements of the wounded beast. The coconut trees, with the dangling children, are swaying too. Desmond urges you, “Take pictures now, did you get it, now, now, get its dying eyes!” Everyone is taking pictures. People are screaming. Your heart is pounding. They are spitting betel saliva mix. The road has turned red and wet. The buffalo falls. The flies that circled it all its life finally get the chance to dig in to its meat.

People rush to bring in the second buffalo. Cameras click. Babies wail. Your heart is a time bomb. Blow after blow falls on the animal’s neck. You stay on to watch.  Finally the pink buffalo is brought. “This one is strong,” says Desmond. “This will be good.” A lean man strikes; opening a river of blood. But the buffalo doesn’t move; the crowd goes silent. Even the dancing warriors stop. Suddenly it pulls, dragging six men with it. The dancers shriek, “Kakakakaka!” Women and children flee. “This one has so much life!” screams Desmond, laughing. It has no chance.

Seven buffaloes and four pigs are slaughtered that day. Desmond explains, “According to Marapu, blood spilled in front of the house ensures the dead’s passage to heaven. These animals will join her there.” Names are called and the meat is distributed among all including you. Desmond says, “These animals are precious. We only eat meat during such feasts.”

Suddenly women wail. The corpse is brought outside. Young girls carry wreaths of paper flowers. Wooden poles hold open the capstone of the tomb and the corpse is laid inside. Men close the lid; her final journey has begun, inside a Sumbanese tomb.

Thousand Year Old Tomb At Sumba, A Place Known Locally As The End Of The World

All along western Sumba, one can see megalithic tombs, some over five hundred years old.  These tombs have four stone walls covered by a carved capstone. Sacrifices and feasts follow each step of tomb building; while seeking permission from the community for tomb building, obtaining rights to dig stones from the clans owning the quarries, and precise cutting of the stones. Once cut, the stones may be left at the quarry for decades as families save up or borrow enough resources to move these to the village. 

The moving of the stones is one of the most costly aspects. Stingy people avoid the whole deal and build concrete tombs on the spot. But the rich and the traditionalists would have none of this. For who can miss, if they can afford to, to create a spectacle of a thousand men using vines to pull giant slabs over wooden rollers for a week, accompanied by singing and motivational shouting, and feasts for the hired hands each day. Villagers along the way watch this in awe and ask, “Whose family is it?” That’s the stardust moment of life in Sumba.  The rich, therefore, build tombs for themselves when still alive.

Once at the site, a specialist stonecutter is hired to carve special symbols on the capstone. Rituals, feasts and slaughters follow this and finally one has a tomb worth dying for. 

Intoxicated from the day’s events, you head back,  You realize that there are many layers to a Sumbanese, shaped from poverty and harsh weather, a penchant for visual displays of violence, a history of bloody communal fights, rigid social norms; and yet they welcome strangers with respect and the humblest of smiles, stained blood red, from the betel nut they chewed all day.


©Shivaji Das

Shivaji Das was born and brought up in the north-eastern province of Assam in India. He is presently working as a management consultant in Singapore. Shivaji’s writings have been published in various magazines such as Time, Venture Mag, Hack Writers. His photographs have been selected for various exhibitions in Singapore and Malaysia. Shivaji takes an active interest in migrant issues and eradication of underage poverty and is associated with Singapore based organization TWC2.



Last modified on Thursday, 31 October 2013