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Why are tombs in Sumba so different?

Sumba is an island in Eastern Indonesia which is known for its particularly elaborate funerary rituals. I wrote my disseration for my MA in Anthropology on this subject. it is obviously quite specialised but I thought it would be useful for people who are interested to see how looking at the various types of tombs might give a clue to their significance.

Slide 1

Tombs are often located in the centre of the village and are used in everyday situations such as drying laundry or rice. Dogs and children are often seen on the tombs and this poses no problem.

Slide 2

The size of the tomb reflects the social status of the deceased or his family. Names do not always appear on some of the older tombs.

Slide 3

People are only buried together if they got on well in their lifetime. On the photo, one can see, wrapped in a traditional textile, the bones of a lady being taken out of a tomb and moved to another one, as she had quarrelled with the new occupant who was buried that day.

Slide 4

The way in which the tombs are decorated also reflect the importance of the deceased. For older tombs, which are the ones usually shown in guide books, the carved tombstones were

Slide 5

On more recent tombs, the choice of decoration can be surprising. Pigs and cockerels are sacrificial animals, so this may be the intention on the first tomb. As for the aeroplane, I was told, it was something the deceased particularly liked.

Slide 6

Nowadays, some officials like to have their portrait displayed on the tomb.

Slide 7

This tomb, still empty is in West Sumba, where one can build one’s tomb in advance. 20-odd years ago, when this photo was taken, bathroom tiles were quite rare and expensive. This obviously belonged to someone wealthy. A substantial tomb will help enjoy a better life in the realm of the

Slide 8

One’s tomb can also be modified after the funeral, still with the aim to gain a better afterlife. This is why sons or daughters who can afford it will pay for their parents’ tomb to be rebuilt or redecorated.

Slide 9

One may also notice that many tombs have Christian symbols. Protestant missionaries have converted a large part of the population, but it does sometimes cause problems when it comes to tradition: it has been known for families who had buried their loved ones near the church, to claim them back to have them buried near their house.

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