“Taking Tea with the Dead” — the working title of the book I’m not quite getting around to writing — was taken from an experience over 20 years ago, when I was invited in to meet the grandmother of some random villager in Sumba. I was a little put out, on being introduced to Granny, to find that she had died the day before. I picked this piece of exotica as my working title because I was pretty sure that I would find, revisiting these parts two decades later, that such esoteric traditions would have disappeared. Tea with the Dead would surely have died, swept out of Indonesia on a homogenising wave of modernisation. The title would reflect the changes in the country, and perhaps, in a self-centred sort of way, my nostalgia for something that was no more.
Not at all. When I went to visit my friend Mama Bobo the other day to arrange our outing to the pasola jousting, she was in a tizz. Her sister-in-law had died the night before. Now she had to scrape together weavings, pigs, buffalo and endless supplies of betel nut to contribute to the week of feasting that precedes the funeral. Of course I must come along (this would entail some scraping together of my own, for every guest must pay tribute). And so, 22 years after I first took tea with a dead Granny, I repeated the ritual. Which rather calls in to question that homogenising wave of modernisation. Though Granny slept through it, the remainder of her terrestrial existence was quite bloody. For the less squeamish readers there will be more, much more, in the book. Whatever it is called.
Sumba is a graveyard of bodies and good intentions. Physically, it is littered with impressive megalithic tombs and their hideous modern counterparts. Financially, it is littered with development projects that haven’t quite developed anything.
“Megalithic” sounds ancient, and many are, but they are still being built today. The tomb in the photo above was built in the 1970s; it took several hundred people the best part of a year to drag the stones on wooden rollers from the quarry to the burial site, and months more to carve. It’s “voluntary” work, but workers need to be fed, and richly. That makes for a lot of dead buffalo. No huge surprise that many people are now using cement and tiles. Since the tile-piles have doors in them (to make it easier to shove family members in as they die) the island looks increasingly like a repository for surplus public loos, though some families are prettying them up (and covering their bets) with pictures of Jesus.
Not wanting to be outdone, the island’s Christians Proper (often ethnic Chinese) have got Public Works to weigh in with cement. The Christian graveyard has a lovely new fence, in a delicate shade of primrose. Its cement pillars are carefully placed so that any Indonesian child and most adults can walk comfortably between them. And it cost this district, which scores close to the bottom of the national ranking on education and health, just 314 million rupiah (a cool US$ 30,000). This certainly doesn’t compare with the cost of a traditional West Sumba tomb, but still…
May everyone rest in peace.