sponsored links
TEDMED 2013

Kelli Swazey: Life that doesn't end with death

April 17, 2013

In Tana Toraja, weddings and births aren’t the social gatherings that knit society together. In this part of Indonesia, big, raucous funerals form the center of social life. Anthropologist Kelli Swazey takes a look at this culture, in which the bodies of dead relatives are cared for even years after they have passed. While it sounds strange to Western sensibilities, she says, this could actually be a truer reflection of the fact that relationships with loved ones don’t simply end when breathing does. (Filmed at TEDMED.)

Kelli Swazey - Anthropologist
Kelli Swazey examines how religious and spiritual practices form group identity, and play a vital role in structuring the interactions of individuals within a culture. Full bio

sponsored links
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I think it's safe to say
00:12
that all humans will be intimate with death
00:14
at least once in their lives.
00:18
But what if that intimacy began
00:20
long before you faced your own transition
00:22
from life into death?
00:25
What would life be like
00:28
if the dead literally lived alongside you?
00:29
In my husband's homeland
00:33
in the highlands of Sulawesi island
00:35
in eastern Indonesia,
00:38
there is a community of people that experience death
00:40
not as a singular event
00:42
but as a gradual social process.
00:45
In Tana Toraja,
00:49
the most important social moments in people's lives,
00:50
the focal points of social and cultural interaction
00:53
are not weddings or births or even family dinners,
00:57
but funerals.
01:01
So these funerals are characterized
01:04
by elaborate rituals
01:06
that tie people in a system of reciprocal debt
01:08
based on the amount of animals --
01:12
pigs, chickens and, most importantly, water buffalo --
01:14
that are sacrificed and distributed
01:19
in the name of the deceased.
01:21
So this cultural complex surrounding death,
01:24
the ritual enactment of the end of life,
01:28
has made death the most visible
01:32
and remarkable aspect of Toraja's landscape.
01:34
Lasting anywhere from a few days
01:39
to a few weeks,
01:41
funeral ceremonies are a raucous affair,
01:43
where commemorating someone who's died
01:46
is not so much a private sadness
01:49
but more of a publicly shared transition.
01:52
And it's a transition that's just as much
01:57
about the identity of the living
02:00
as it is about remembrance of the dead.
02:02
So every year, thousands of visitors
02:06
come to Tana Toraja to see, as it were,
02:08
this culture of death,
02:11
and for many people these grandiose ceremonies
02:13
and the length of the ceremonies
02:16
are somehow incommensurable
02:19
with the way that we face our own mortality in the West.
02:22
So even as we share death as a universal experience,
02:27
it's not experienced the same way the world over.
02:33
And as an anthropologist,
02:37
I see these differences in experience
02:39
being rooted in the cultural and social world
02:41
through which we define the phenomena around us.
02:46
So where we see an unquestionable reality,
02:51
death as an irrefutable biological condition,
02:56
Torajans see the expired corporeal form
03:01
as part of a larger social genesis.
03:05
So again, the physical cessation of life
03:08
is not the same as death.
03:13
In fact, a member of society is only truly dead
03:16
when the extended family can agree upon
03:20
and marshal the resources necessary
03:23
to hold a funeral ceremony
03:25
that is considered appropriate in terms of resources
03:27
for the status of the deceased.
03:31
And this ceremony has to take place
03:34
in front of the eyes of the whole community
03:36
with everyone's participation.
03:38
So after a person's physical death,
03:41
their body is placed in a special room
03:43
in the traditional residence, which is called the tongkonan.
03:46
And the tongkonan is symbolic
03:49
not only of the family's identity
03:51
but also of the human life cycle from birth to death.
03:56
So essentially, the shape of the building
03:59
that you're born into is the shape
04:01
of the structure which carries you
04:03
to your ancestral resting place.
04:05
Until the funeral ceremony,
04:09
which can be held years after a person's physical death,
04:11
the deceased is referred to as "to makala," a sick person,
04:16
or "to mama," a person who is asleep,
04:22
and they continue to be a member of the household.
04:26
They are symbolically fed and cared for,
04:30
and the family at this time
04:33
will begin a number of ritual injunctions,
04:35
which communicates to the wider community around them
04:38
that one of their members is undergoing the transition
04:41
from this life into the afterlife
04:44
known as Puya.
04:47
So I know what some of you must be thinking right now.
04:49
Is she really saying that these people live
04:52
with the bodies of their dead relatives?
04:55
And that's exactly what I'm saying.
04:58
But instead of giving in to the sort of visceral reaction
05:01
we have to this idea of proximity to bodies,
05:04
proximity to death,
05:08
or how this notion just does not fit
05:10
into our very biological or medical
05:12
sort of definition of death,
05:16
I like to think about what the Torajan way
05:18
of viewing death encompasses of the human experience
05:21
that the medical definition leaves out.
05:26
I think that Torajans socially recognize
05:31
and culturally express
05:35
what many of us feel to be true
05:38
despite the widespread acceptance
05:41
of the biomedical definition of death,
05:43
and that is that our relationships with other humans,
05:48
their impact on our social reality,
05:52
doesn't cease with the termination
05:55
of the physical processes of the body,
05:58
that there's a period of transition
06:02
as the relationship between the living and the dead
06:04
is transformed but not ended.
06:09
So Torajans express this idea of this enduring relationship
06:13
by lavishing love and attention
06:18
on the most visible symbol of that relationship,
06:20
the human body.
06:23
So my husband has fond memories
06:25
of talking to and playing with
06:28
and generally being around his deceased grandfather,
06:30
and for him there is nothing unnatural about this.
06:34
This is a natural part of the process
06:37
as the family comes to terms with the transition
06:40
in their relationship to the deceased,
06:44
and this is the transition from relating to the deceased
06:46
as a person who's living
06:49
to relating to the deceased
06:51
as a person who's an ancestor.
06:53
And here you can see these wooden effigies
06:55
of the ancestors,
06:57
so these are people who have already been buried,
06:58
already had a funeral ceremony.
07:00
These are called tau tau.
07:01
So the funeral ceremony itself
07:04
embodies this relational perspective on death.
07:07
It ritualizes the impact of death on families
07:11
and communities.
07:15
And it's also a moment of self-awareness.
07:17
It's a moment when people think about who they are,
07:20
their place in society,
07:23
and their role in the life cycle
07:27
in accordance with Torajan cosmology.
07:29
There's a saying in Toraja
07:33
that all people will become grandparents,
07:35
and what this means is that after death,
07:38
we all become part of the ancestral line
07:41
that anchors us between the past and the present
07:43
and will define who our loved ones are into the future.
07:47
So essentially, we all become grandparents
07:52
to the generations of human children
07:55
that come after us.
07:57
And this metaphor of membership
08:00
in the greater human family
08:03
is the way that children also describe
08:05
the money that they invest
08:07
in these sacrificial buffaloes
08:08
that are thought to carry people's soul
08:10
from here to the afterlife,
08:12
and children will explain
08:14
that they will invest the money in this
08:16
because they want to repay their parents
08:19
the debt for all of the years their parents spent
08:21
investing and caring for them.
08:24
But the sacrifice of buffalo
08:27
and the ritual display of wealth
08:30
also exhibits the status of the deceased,
08:32
and, by extension, the deceased's family.
08:35
So at funerals, relationships are reconfirmed
08:39
but also transformed
08:43
in a ritual drama that highlights
08:45
the most salient feature about death in this place:
08:48
its impact on life and the relationships of the living.
08:51
So all of this focus on death
08:57
doesn't mean that Torajans don't aspire
08:59
to the ideal of a long life.
09:02
They engage in many practices
09:05
thought to confer good health
09:07
and survival to an advanced age.
09:09
But they don't put much stock
09:12
in efforts to prolong life in the face of debilitating illness
09:14
or in old age.
09:19
It's said in Toraja that everybody has
09:22
sort of a predetermined amount of life.
09:24
It's called the sunga'.
09:26
And like a thread, it should be allowed to unspool
09:28
to its natural end.
09:31
So by having death as a part
09:34
of the cultural and social fabric of life,
09:37
people's everyday decisions about their health
09:41
and healthcare are affected.
09:44
The patriarch of my husband's maternal clan,
09:47
Nenet Katcha,
09:50
is now approaching the age of 100, as far as we can tell.
09:52
And there are increasing signs
09:58
that he is about to depart on his own journey for Puya.
10:00
And his death will be greatly mourned.
10:05
But I know that my husband's family
10:10
looks forward to the moment
10:12
when they can ritually display
10:14
what his remarkable presence has meant to their lives,
10:18
when they can ritually recount
10:23
his life's narrative,
10:24
weaving his story
10:26
into the history of their community.
10:28
His story is their story.
10:32
His funeral songs will sing them a song about themselves.
10:36
And it's a story that has no discernible beginning,
10:42
no foreseeable end.
10:46
It's a story that goes on
10:48
long after his body no longer does.
10:50
People ask me if I'm frightened or repulsed
10:55
by participating in a culture
10:59
where the physical manifestations of death
11:02
greet us at every turn.
11:05
But I see something profoundly transformative
11:06
in experiencing death as a social process
11:10
and not just a biological one.
11:13
In reality, the relationship between the living and the dead
11:16
has its own drama in the U.S. healthcare system,
11:20
where decisions about how long to stretch
11:24
the thread of life are made based on our emotional
11:26
and social ties with the people around us,
11:30
not just on medicine's ability to prolong life.
11:32
We, like the Torajans,
11:37
base our decisions about life
11:40
on the meanings and the definitions
11:43
that we ascribe to death.
11:46
So I'm not suggesting that anyone in this audience
11:49
should run out and adopt the traditions
11:52
of the Torajans.
11:54
It might be a little bit difficult
11:56
to put into play in the United States.
11:58
But I want to ask what we can gain
12:01
from seeing physical death not only as a biological process
12:03
but as part of the greater human story.
12:07
What would it be like to look on
12:12
the expired human form with love
12:14
because it's so intimately a part of who we all are?
12:18
If we could expand our definition of death
12:22
to encompass life,
12:24
we could experience death as part of life
12:27
and perhaps face death
12:31
with something other than fear.
12:33
Perhaps one of the answers to the challenges
12:37
that are facing the U.S. healthcare system,
12:40
particularly in the end-of-life care,
12:43
is as simple as a shift in perspective,
12:46
and the shift in perspective in this case
12:49
would be to look at the social life of every death.
12:51
It might help us recognize that the way we limit
12:56
our conversation about death
13:00
to something that's medical or biological
13:02
is reflective of a larger culture that we all share
13:05
of avoiding death, being afraid of talking about it.
13:08
If we could entertain and value
13:14
other kinds of knowledge about life,
13:18
including other definitions of death,
13:22
it has the potential to change the discussions
13:25
that we have about the end of life.
13:27
It could change the way that we die,
13:31
but more importantly,
13:35
it could transform the way that we live.
13:37
(Applause)
13:44

sponsored links

Kelli Swazey - Anthropologist
Kelli Swazey examines how religious and spiritual practices form group identity, and play a vital role in structuring the interactions of individuals within a culture.

Why you should listen

Kelli Swazey is fascinated by two big questions: how do we know who we are, and how does our identity shape interactions with others? As a cultural anthropologist, Swazey has explored these ideas by researching how religion, spirituality and politics define society in Indonesia, where she has lived for more than 10 years. Swazey is currently a lecturer at the Center for Cross-Cultural and Religious Studies at Gadjah Mada University.

In her research, Swazey has looked at Christian-Muslim relations in North Sulawesi, documented Indonesian church services in New England and taken an interest in the funeral practices in Tana Toraja, located in eastern Indonesia. Her husband is an ethnic Torajan, and Swazey found herself fascinated by his stories of playing with his grandfather long after he was dead. Examinging the way Torajans make death a unique part of village life has deeply influenced her own thoughts on the end of life, she says. This is why she loves anthropology: because thinking about human difference has the power to teach us about ourselves.

Swazey has also embarked on an unusual cultural tour of Indonesia: she is learning to sing a song from every province.

The original video is available on TED.com
sponsored links

If you need translations, you can install "Google Translate" extension into your Chrome Browser.
Furthermore, you can change playback rate by installing "Video Speed Controller" extension.

Data provided by TED.

This website is owned and operated by Tokyo English Network.
The developer's blog is here.