As someone who grew up in the southeastern United States, more specifically in the very Christian Baptist area of Richmond, Virginia, I was always presented with a strong Western view on death. What I mean by that is my family is fearful of death. They treat it as if it is a horrible tragedy in which we lose the deceased for the rest of time, even when one has lived a long and fulfilling life. They almost take death personally, focusing on how it affects them. They give a little bit of comfort and joy to each other by saying the person who has died is ‘with God now’, but they leave it at that. The funeral rites are performed, everyone cries for the person who has died, and then we move on with our lives, being sad when we bring this person up again.
I’m sorry to say that in January this year I lost my best friend from childhood, who passed away at the age of 34. So many people who showed up to mourn didn’t even commit to going forward to see the body at the funeral because it was ‘too hard’. This was the exact phrase a few people told me throughout the experience, and it shocked me they couldn’t even commit to saying goodbye to her. I’ve traveled throughout many cultures throughout my adult life, so I’ve actually tried hard to shake that extremely negative and finite way people in the west look at death, and I try more to remember and celebrate the person who died, which I attempted to do throughout the experience of losing my best friend, but I will admit it’s difficult to change that viewpoint after growing up in the western world.
I think death is considered a rite of passage both because of the way it affects the person who has died and also because of how it affects those who are still living who loved the person who has passed. Death is, quite frankly, the end of life, so it would be a monumental moment in anyone’s journey, even if it is believed to simply be the end of it. For any who believe in a spirit world, regardless of their religion, death is a transition or a move from the world of the living to the afterlife, which would make it a huge rite of passage or shift in the journey of one’s soul. The soul is definitely leaving one group or one stage of its existence to join another in death, making death easily a rite of passage by definition. I think death can potentially be a rite of passage for those the deceased has left behind, too, as it allows people time for self reflection and awareness, for people to analyze their own role in society and who they are and how that fits within their community.
I want to take a minute to direct you to read about the Toraja death rituals, which you can read about here: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/14/travel/torajan-death-rituals-indonesia.html
As far as the Tana Toraja is concerned, death is treated very differently, in a way that is most definitely a social rite of intensification, as the whole community must come together once the funeral rites are performed to witness them. They are faced with seeing and experiencing what a good life is worth and why it’s worth living, as Kelli Swazey describes in her Ted Talk. In my opinion, the stage of separation occurs for the Tana Toraja when a person dies. Their spirit is brought into the unknown through their death as the move from the status of living to the status of death. The deceased then transitions and in the process, transforms the entire community around them in the transition stage. In that experience of death with the Tana Toraja, the relationship with the living and the deceased do not terminate. There is a period where that relationship transforms as they give love and respect to the human body of the person who died, which is now an exact symbol of that person in the most blatant and real way it could be perceived. And the deceased slowly turns from a person into an ancestor, one that people in the community can respect, get insights from, and connect to far beyond the present. And as far as the Tana Toraja is concerned, the deceased then returns as an ancestor. For the Toraja, death isn’t just a biological process, rather a social process for the community, which makes it a very different view of death than that of our western world, and I honestly think we could learn a lot from it.