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Bring out your dead

28 April 2017


Cultural identity: the body of Paulo Cirinda, who died 12 years ago at the age of 105, is observed by members of his family, in The Documentary: Living with the dead (World Service, Wednesday of last week)

Cultural identity: the body of Paulo Cirinda, who died 12 years ago at the age of 105, is observed by members of his family, in The Documentary: Livin...

THE Christian Church, in its colonisation of the globe, has never had a problem with cultural re­­cycling. Do not waste that old pagan oak tree: you can build a good, solid altar with all that wood. Yet it takes a broad mind to regard as appro­priate, within a Christian frame­work, the practices of the Torajan people of Sulawesi island, in the Indonesian archipelago.

In last year’s Reith Lectures, Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah argued that we should regard religion as an expression primarily of cultural identity rather than doctrinal belief. If he wanted a case-study to support his assertion, then here it is. As described in The Documentary: Living with the dead (World Service, Wednesday of last week), the Torajan will infuse the deceased with strong preserving fluids, and continue to treat them as members of the family.

Propped up in bed, or in a chair, the dead may stay with the family for several years, receiving visitors, partaking in family events. We met the family of Paulo Cirinda, who died 12 years ago at the age of 105. His family are saving up for buffalo to furnish a proper funeral: they would expect to sacrifice at least 100 for somebody of his stature.

Most of the Torajan identify as Christians, and at Tana Toraja we were invited to a Christian church where, after the morning service, the congregation moved outside for the Ma’nene ceremony. This entailed digging up the bodies of loved ones, and having new family photos taken.

All this was described by Sahar Zand, who had the courage to ask some of the participants how the practice sat alongside their Christian faith. One lady was prepared to admit that there was a tension, but that she attended out of a sense of familial duty: that tension between religion as identity and as doctrine which Professor Appiah described.

Identity is at the heart also of The Odyssey Project (Radio 4, weekdays), a series of poems on themes from Homer, devised by British writers with refugee backgrounds. The subtitle of the series, My name is Nobody, derives from the Cyclops episode during which Odysseus tricks the giant by calling himself Nobody, and which reflects the loss of identity which so many refugees experience in the course of their flight from poverty and oppression.

These are beautifully crafted pieces: voices, music, and location recording balanced with a precision and thought that rewards second listening. Each poem has a distinct personality: some are narratives, others reinterpret the source material with more freedom. But in each there is a texture to the voices which tells much more than the words they utter, not least the rasping utter­ances of Mir Mahfuz Ali, Bangladeshi born, who suffered a bullet to the throat during his ordeal.

His account of the Scylla and Charybdis episode (Monday) in­­cluded the music of the oud, and was a reminder of the musical char­acter of Homer’s epics. It was also a reminder that radio is the perfect medium for these ancient multi­media classics.

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