A Funeral in Sumba (Indonesia)

Dec 14, 2014

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Warning: graphic images, below!

Preparing the area, meaning, the village square for the ceremony. Notice the children on top of a tomb.

During my stay in Nihiwatu, as dive instructor and photographer, I was invited, by one of our boathouse staff members (Martinus) to his father funeral. He hardly spoke any English, I can’t speak more than maybe a hundred words of Bahasa Indonesia, and far less of any Sumbanese dialect.

Despite our verbal communication being scarce, he seemed an honest, thought, straight-forward, man – someone we could trust – which is important when we are daily playing with our lives on the wavy and treacherous waters of the Sumbanese sea.

At the time, there was no-one to ask the meaning or the whole content of such a ceremony. I was just told what to do, when invited and stuck to that.

Mother and child, attending the funeral. There is absolutely no feeling that blood shedding and death is improper to children. All seem to coexist with life and death.

On the first day, me and another staff members were invited to his home, near Pantai Rua where we stayed, accompanying the living and the dead. Sitting at a traditional house’s porch, we drank either coffee or tea, smoked, chewed betel nut, and watched our colleagues play card domino. It was funny, as the loser must hang a pig jaw in his ear, as a punishment for his loss.

Martinus and his brother (the only family members I knew) were visibly shaken, but for most of the crowd, and there was maybe a hundred of them, it was just something normal.

We went back to the resort, and I’m not aware of what happened during that night. On the following afternoon we returned for the buffalo slaughtering ceremony. I believe it is part of the Marapu religion, but there was no priest to be seen (or, at least, I couldn’t tell them, among the crowd).

Villager, traditionally dressed, waiting for the ceremony.

One by one, buffalos were brought to the centre of the village, where the ancestors tombs stayed, tied with long ropes, pulled by around ten men. Then, someone would take the parang (small sword) and cut their throat, leaving them bleeding to death.

As the last one was slaughtered, they soon proceeded to dismember them, and cut in small pieces. As far as I understood, some would be boiled, some would be smoked, and some would be taken to the attendant’s home. People, however, didn’t seem too interested on the meat, on a gastronomic perspective. I remember seeing the elaborate sculptures made from pork meat and fat, at the temples and ceremonies in Bali. There, it was all about processing it fast. Unfortunately we weren’t able to stay and attend to what I believed to be a following meal… There was, however, a caged pig on site so, most probably, the ceremony would last for some days, with a few common meals.

Caged pig, waiting to be slaughter of one of the following meals.

The pig’s jaws and buffaloes heads, are kept at the traditional house, as a memory of the event. That memory is crucial, as all the animals offered are expected to be retributed when the offerer need to have his own ceremony. This chain of offers and debts can grow to astronomical values (I heard one Buffalo with specially big horns was valued in 10.000 USD, but I couldn’t confirm it).

People will get in great debt, sometimes even bankruptcy, just to sustain this tradition, while living miserable lives in between.

Get the overall feeling and energy of the ceremony in the images from the following gallery:


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