Kelli Swazey: Life that doesn’t end with death

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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.

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Kelli Swazey

About Kelli Swazey

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.

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