Tataluan Murut Funeral Rites
A Personal Account of a
Tahol Murut Funeral

by Herman (January 2000)

Introduction

My Christmas and New Year plans for last year had changed, quite abruptly and unexpectedly. Instead of celebrating what is closer to Roman Saturnalia – and more appropriate in 35 degrees Celsius than Jingle Bells, with the Rungus of the north of Sabah, I was urgently called to the death-bed of the mother of the Murut family that had accepted and adopted me some years ago.

This lead to a series of experiences that surpassed whatever I have encountered here in Borneo so far. It also left me, considered a full member of the family, a great deal poorer money-wise. However, the insight I have gained into the intricate tribal life of the Murut is invaluable. And at the end of the funeral rites I was ‘rewarded’ with a gift of exceedingly rare value: a string of beautiful Cornelian beads of great antiquity, treasured and valued by the Murut, and many other people of Borneo, much beyond gold. The few times I saw such ancient beads actually worn I did not even dream of ever coveting them, for I knew that they are rarely ever available for sale outside times of extreme distress. They are generally handed down from mother to daughter. When such beads leave the family, it is normally as part of the bride-price, and depending on how much they are coveted by the family of the bride, the string I was given could make up, with two ancient jars, half the dowry for a Murut girl.

The Cornelian beads belonged to the mother, together with some other, more recent beads, bangles, gold chains and earrings. These and other personal belongings were distributed between her direct descendants once the funeral rites were over. After long discussions amongst the father and his children, everybody received his share of the heirloom. I did not expect anything, still underestimating how serious the Murut are when they adopt someone in their family. The share – a very special one, for everybody else received gold – was a touching experience. Though there are no initiation rites that would mark one’s integral acceptance into a Murut tribe (well, in olden days the taking of a human head might have done the trick…) this was to me the ultimate confirmation of my integration, and I know now the implications. Amongst the Murut I have my rights, but also my responsibilities, and without wanting to sound theatrical I accept these gladly, and will perform my duties whenever it is possible and within my powers.


Death

On the 20th of December 1999 I received a call from Keningau, from my elder brother, telling me that mother was dying. “Kami tunggu masa dia - we are waiting for her time,” were his words, “bila kau pulang – when are you coming home?” The news was bad enough, but what struck me is that from all the Malay words he could have used to ask me to come and see them, he used ‘pulang’, meaning ‘go home (to your parents place, where you belong to etc)’. It was the most intimate term he could have used, and the most personal, emphasising on the urgency of the case.

Not much later my younger brother Albert, stationed in Lahad Datu with the border police on the other side of the island, called me up to join him, his wife and son. They had just arrived at the airport, and on their way to town they picked me up. Together we took a taxi to Keningau.

Vaguely knowing what I was embarking on, I had nothing more with me than two t-shirts, a towel, and my tooth-brush: my standard equipment in my bag. But there was no time to drop by at my place, so I told myself that I liked travelling light anyway. We hurriedly proceeded to Keningau, where we arrived in the late afternoon. We went to the hospital at once, to see mother. When we arrived, and we were the last immediate family members to get there, mother opened her eyes for a last time. She was clearly conscious, but her body was so weak that she could not breathe without assisting apparatus. The tubes forcing air into her lungs made it impossible for her to talk. It were agonising moments, but the waiting for her do die was perhaps even more agonising, listening to the incessant pumping of the machine, and watching her bodily fluids drain out of her nose, in thin tubes.

When her heart ceased to beat at three thirty in the morning, the shock of her death was greater than anticipated. Most family members were present, and the hospital rang with cries and wailing.

She has died at the age of 51, succumbing finally to the cancer that the doctors had tired to remove a year ago. She leaves nine children, three of them not yet married, two not even yet 15 years old.

I found it quite remarkable that the hospital staff would let us be there at this time, in such numbers. Though there are strict visitors’ hours, these seem to be the moments when the place is quietest. During all other times, the hospital is animated with families and friends of the patients, and the children’s playground, strategically placed next to the maternity ward, is noisy until late in the evening. The hospital is very airy, and in all rooms there are large open window bays. Mosquito netting on the windows keep too much tropical insects at bay, but in all it is a very ‘human’ hospital, with nothing of that particular antiseptic smell and feeling penetrating everything, including mind and moral of patients, and visitors alike.

The husband and brothers had made arrangements virtually over the bed of the dying mother. When she finally passed away, things went unusually quick for the otherwise laid-back Murut. The body was transferred to the morgue, where a Chinese funeral undertaker and his assistant proceeded to embalm the body, preventing it from rotting too quickly in the hot climate. They also dressed her, and then laid her in a simple wooden coffin – at an exorbitant price. This was quite against the will of the mother, who would have liked to be buried in a traditional, hand hewn coffin made from the trunk of a hardwood tree. She had also requested that her body be kept in the funeral house of her ancestors – another wish which could not be granted. She had been married, and thus ‘belonged’ to her husband and was to be buried in his own cemetery.

When the sun rose at six in the morning, her body, still at the morgue, was presented to the ever-increasing flow of friends and relatives. There was much wailing and crying, and people tried to know what would happen next. Her body was to be transferred to Labang, the house of her father, and from there eventually to Tataluan. Albert could organise a Landrover through the police, for it needs a good off-road vehicle to arrive in Labang.

Carefully, the coffin was lifted into the back of the car, bedded on mattresses for the bumpy road, and covered with a tarp against the dust. The husband followed the coffin, and it must have been a most awkward journey, more so that he was tightly squeezed at the back with hardly any space to sit down properly, on a hard bench, with a dusty and bumpy road ahead. Starting at eight in the morning, it took them nearly the whole day to arrive in Labang.


Preparations

Someone organised a lorry, and as soon as the shops in Keningau were open, we went to buy food supplies. The lorry, usually transporting gravel, was soon spilling over with hundreds of kilograms of rice and sugar, packs of noodles, coffee, cooking oil and other foods difficult to get by in the jungle. There were also dozens of chickens and some guinea fowl, vegetables and a drum of fuel for the outboard engines of the boats and the generator set for electricity. The lorry could not go to Labang. Instead, all the supplies were brought to Sepulut, from where they were conveyed to Labang by boat, in a five-hour journey. There were about 10 boat (over-)loads.

A number of family members had cars and vans, and everybody tried to get a ride. I ended up with four of the brothers, with their wives and children. In all, we were 14 people in a Toyota Landcruiser, with luggage, but no life stock for a change. I was seated in the front, with one of the wives and her baby, breastfeeding, and a boy of seven on my lap. Only the driver was in the privileged situation and had no kids on his lap. When I twisted my head I looked at a maternity ward: three mothers shared the backseat, each with one bare breast to feed her baby, some more kids between their legs and Albert right behind me, also on the rear seat. Two more adults were sitting – or rather were folded away – with the luggage.

The car was in a bad state. Maintenance expenses had been avoided too long, and now several hundred Ringgits had to be spent to make the trip: a broken and particularly dangerous suspension had to be changed, the engine had to be overhauled, and two completely bold tyres had to be exchanged. This took more than half the day, and we only left Keningau in the late afternoon. As soon as we were on the dirt road leading into the interior it started raining. It was one of these tropical monsoon rains that drench everything immediately, and make the dirt tracks of the interior treacherously slippery. However atrocious these driving conditions in the overloaded car were, I offered to drive, partially because I had slept for three uneasy hours, which the others hadn’t, partially because I was eager to have some space to sit… But I was soon again replaced by one of the elder brothers: I was driving too fast, and the ladies were afraid! I cannot understand their fear of speed (I certainly did not exceed 40 km per hour!). Even less can I understand that they can sit completely unaffected and fearless when the car swerves, glides and slides towards steep drops on either side of the road, and the driver is making more use of the clutch and brake than of the accelerator. The car even had the option of four-wheel driving, which was in working order – a small miracle. But then, four-wheel driving is something these people only use when the car gets really stuck in an unexpectedly deep and muddy pothole, or is already halfway down the ravine. Now and then again we were in some hair-rising close-disastrous situations, and my heart missed a few beats on that journey, but somewhen you stop counting the possible accidents. Instead, you start sending desperate prayers to whomever might listen to you, and you are grateful when you arrive in one piece.

We arrived shortly after midnight at the longhouse in Labang. The normally quiet village at this hour was wide awake with frenetic preparations for the funeral rites. A number of men were already dutifully drinking tapai.

After a short night, during which more cars and people arrived, a grey morning dawned to a gloomy day. A cow was slaughtered in front of the house, and by midday some one hundred people were served cow stew, sago and rice. Somehow the flow of food was constant, and the flow of people increased. They arrived by families, and each new arrival in the longhouse was soon acclaimed by the long, heart-rendering songs the Murut perform on the death of their people.

Albert was confused that his parents in law had not yet arrived, and we went on a three-hour journey down the river, hiked a car and found them in their village prepared for departure. They had had news of the demise of Albert’s mother, but no transport. Their presence being a must, they reckoned that sooner or later someone of the family would pick them up. Soon we were back on the river with the entire family of Albert’s parents in law.

All the relatives, close and remote, of the deceased have to attend the funeral. Some of the men have two and three wives. They all bring along their kids, some of whom are already married. They in turn bring their families and other relatives, which multiplies the number of persons exponentially. Parents in law of each married member of the direct family also need to be present at the funeral. They have to help in nature with the considerable expenses the rites entrain, too. The ladies work in the kitchen, and the men bring gongs and tapai, go hunting, and, seemingly most importantly, help to consume the sheer unbelievable quantities of tapai.

We returned to Labang in the afternoon, to find the longhouse bursting with people. But Albert assured me that this was nothing: “Wait until we get to Tataluan. There will be a lot of people, so many that there won’t be enough space for everybody to lie down and sleep.”

The next day I spent going up and down river, climbing slippery banks with rice-wine jars and other supplies, loading and unloading boats. We went all the way up to Tataluan, where the final ceremony was to be held. Tataluan has been abandoned a few years ago, and all its inhabitants moved to Labang and the surrounding areas, where they are closer to a school, and a clinic. However, important functions, like the different stages of marriage, birth and name-giving ceremonies and funerals of the people of Tataluan have to be held in the original longhouse. To this, the house had only recently been enlarged. The gallery was widened by the addition of an elevated sleeping platform some six feet wide. Not only does this look more authentic – the platform was an integral part of the traditional Murut longhouses – it also provides more space for the ever increasing family.

Some people had arrived two days ago, and cut the grass, reinstalled the water-pipe and made big fires in the kitchens to rid the house of its lesser desirable inhabitants of the insect kingdom. Amongst them was Lantir, and despite the work he found time to hunt. That evening we ate half a Samba deer, stewed to perfection, with a lot of wild chilly and lime. I was reminded that it was Christmas Day, and it was as perfect as it could have been, with a feast I’d travel around half the globe to taste it. Of course we were all urged to eat a lot, and I think I had almost an entire hind-leg by myself, and a few plates of rice. The Murut people literally stuff themselves when there is food – because tomorrow they might not be successful in hunting. I stuffed myself because I knew it would be long before I could taste such delicacies again.

We went back to Labang on a river eerily lit by the full-moon. The jungle was close and loud, but mysteriously black against the velvet sky. Being not particularly fond of white-water trips in leaking, overloaded, home-made longboats in the first place, this night-trip, where you can’t see the danger ahead, added a new and exciting dimension of adventure to this sort of sport.

After the body had lain in state in Labang for two nights, and some outstanding bride-price had been settled, we could move to Tataluan. The reason why the body was kept in Labang was precisely of that old dept, which the second wife of the father of the deceased remembered very well. She had wanted an old brass gong, and now she insisted that the body be not moved until the gong was produced. It was an impressive testimony of how expensive a Murut bride can be, and how long you might have to pay for her. It may extend over her death. Brothers and sisters went about to look for the gong she wanted. Another unforeseen expense, but then a Murut funeral is an outrageous display of wealth, whether you have it or not.

The coffin was removed from the house under much clamour and wailing. It was slowly lowered down the steep banks of Labang. Rain had made the business particularly tricky, and some of the coffin bearers slipped into the water, under much laughter of the onlookers. However, great care was taken that the coffin took no harm, and it was safely placed into a boat. In a convoy of seven boats, the body was transferred to Tataluan. The journey took us about an hour, during which the gongs were beaten incessantly, and their dull but powerful rhythm, reserved for funerals, was heard above the outboard engines.


Funeral Practises

Everybody left Labang for Tataluan. They arrived in dozens of impressively overloaded boats – in tourist guides the very same boats are for ‘eight adults and luggage’. I can assure you that they can be loaded with 16 adults (inclusive of the boatman) and as many kids, with luggage containing about all their possessions. Then you add two sacks of rice, half a dozen jars filled with tapai, a selection of gongs, a regular kitchen-sized gas cooker and its gas-tank, a couple of dogs, some chicken and other useful things you can think of. There is not much visible of the boat above the water, but that is not necessary. It is only important that the person bailing water is in Olympic conditions, and the boatman acutely aware where the dangers lie below the turbid surface of the river. Such boat trips are prayer time for me.

The normally abandoned longhouse sprang thus to life with such violence, and such force, that one had the impression it never had been abandoned even a single day. Immediately everything was in place, and everybody was working. Boats were unloaded, firewood was gathered, game was brought in, and food was prepared. It was not long and from seemingly nowhere entire families of chicken appeared under the longhouse. Life was complete, and it reminded me of the colourful accounts of how life was in mediaeval castles. At the height of the feast I tried to do a head-count. The constant movement made this impossible, but finally I estimated that there were some four to five hundred adults, and as many kids.

So many people together make some noise, and the confined, 50 yard long space of the longhouse gallery was not unlike an underground train-station during peak hours, only that in train-stations the transit of people is somewhat organised. There is rarely a minute of silence, especially not in the night, when the myriad of kids runs up and down the gallery instead of the riverbanks. To sleep in such conditions, there are two main solutions: you can drink until you drop. But then, curing a massive hangover trying to find some rest on the bouncing floor and under the hot tin roof of a longhouse during the day is not my preferred form of self-punishment. The other solution is to accept this breathtaking circus and display of exuberant life.

I, as member of the family, eventually had no other duties than drinking and mourning, and the distribution of cigarettes, with which I supplied myself generously before coming to the longhouse. This was, however, only a small part of my contribution. I was given a place to sleep in the family room in the longhouse, while many other relatives, and the guests slept in the gallery. Soon there were so many people that I had to recall Albert’s words. Indeed, there was no more space for people to sleep, and even our room was often so filled with friends and relatives, that I stayed throughout the night drinking and partying. The Murut language has an ingenious word, which means ‘drinking from the evening until the sun rises’: angkatawang. There was a momentary panic – in which I did not believe – at the very beginning of the funeral: that there would not be enough tapai. The jars soon materialised as if by magic by the hundreds, and we could happily ‘angkatawang’ to our heart’s content. In the middle of the gallery there was an ever self-renewing row of some 50 jars, and by the end of the eight days the rites lasted we had consumed more than four hundred jars, and killed every second day a cow. Every day the men came back from hunting with huge wild boars, deer, monkeys and fish. The extreme luck in hunting found a logical explanation, according to Murut belief system: the spirit of the deceased did not want her family and relatives to be in even more difficult situations than that of her death created; now she was aiding in hunting, and providing enough food to feed the congregation lavishly. Food was prepared over ever-burning wooden fires in the spacious kitchens, in enormous cauldrons, and it was served in pails and buckets. Punctually for mealtimes, three times a day the ladies would co-ordinate their appearance, and literally carry in piles of food, which would extend from one end to the other of the longhouse.

The room I was in, smack in the middle of the longhouse, was some kind of pivoting point, a passage for everybody, a waiting room, a meeting room, a place to rest, to change the babies’ diapers, to discuss family matters and to eat. The impression of it being a passage was enforced due to the fact that our kitchen could conveniently be reached through a side entrance at the other end of the house and by crossing two other massive kitchens through some holes in the separation walls. This was a way to get relatively freely to the heart of the party (to the drinking row…) without having to step over people spread criss-cross in the gallery. Then there was another extension behind our kitchen, reached over a wooden bridge that was used as washing platform because there was a hole in the pipe providing water at most times. In the extension lived another two or so families, who also used our room as a passage. Planning houses without having to take into consideration the privacy of families, not to talk of individuals, makes building much easier.

The washing platform could also be used as a toilet in the night. That was about the only time when you could hope to have some private moments, which I find desirable especially for that particular business. Aiming sharply through one of the gaps between the planks of the bridge, more or less covered behind the half-rotten tree-bark wall of our hearth, one did as best as one could. Should someone have to use the bridge, and catch you unawares in your private affairs, then as an unspoken rule both parties would politely look the other way. The other option for that business was to go down to the river, where, with all those people, you’d always have some agreeable company. There was a mutual agreement as to where the ladies were to go, and where the men would squat, though in the night it was not always easy to find an appropriate spot. Best was indeed to go there with a friend, and discussing loudly the latest matters you’d sink your posteriors together into the cool river, without having to fear some unwanted intruder disturbing your harmony.

Days, nights, drinking, eating, everything became one after a few days, and I lost quite track of any notion of time. Spending most of the day in the longhouse, where it was constantly dim but relatively cool, I tired to stay far enough from the jars, but close enough to the food. I needed not worry. Everybody invited me to eat (and then to drink), so that I generally ended up having eaten six to seven times within 24 hours. Wearing loose sarongs, I realised only when I prepared myself for my return to ‘civilisation’ and put on my trousers, that I had gained some pounds!

It was on day eight that the burial ground was finally ready to accept the coffin. It was some kind of a ‘new style’ grave: a cemented box three feet deep in the ground, to be covered with a massive concrete slab. For the Murut, who traditionally do not inhume their dead, it was revolutionary, and gave rise to some discontented voices, especially because the deceased had not wished such a burial. But then everything changes these days. In olden days, and sometimes still now, a dead Murut is laid to rest in a huge jar, which, sealed, is displayed in the family grave-hut. This applies especially to those who still adhere to their own and original beliefs. Another way is to make a coffin from a hardwood tree, but these trees are becoming increasingly rare. Coffins made from the wood of belian are also stored in the burial hut. Modern coffins have to be sealed away in a stone-mausoleum, because the cheap wood they are made of tends to disintegrate very fast. The changes in life have come so fast over these people, that so far only three members of the original Tataluan Murut have been buried in such a way. I was also affirmed that this was an unnecessarily hurried funeral. Barely eight days the body was displayed, while in olden days, had someone died at the same time of the year, people would have waited until the end of the harvest, which was a month away. Sometimes a body was only removed from the house after an entire farming cycle – that was the most estimable way to honour the defunct, but sometimes also the only way. Since every family member has to be present during the funeral, and necessarily needs to be fed, the production of vast quantities of rice, meat and fish pickles, and of course tapai, had to be started with a new rice-cycle. During the time the body is kept in the house, the husband, or the wife, is not allowed to leave the house, not even down to the river to bathe.

Comparing traditional life-style, and considering the fast, often ruthless ‘progress’ it seems to me that there is a machinery behind the changes working for the obscure profits of a one-way consumer society. The Tataluan Murut have been asked to move to the present longhouse in 1969. When asked why, they state that the government wanted them to be closer so they could support and help them better. Indeed, Tataluan had a clinic, but that was only during a time when the Sabah Government was not yet fully controlled by West Malaysia, especially by the present Prime Minister. When the Sabah party lost out to West Malaysia, all support was withdrawn immediately. Curiously, this coincided with the moment when there was no more wood to be taken from the surrounding jungle. And just by coincidence, where the original longhouse of the Tataluan people was, there is now nothing left of the once lush forest. It becomes obvious that it was not only for better support, but for unhindered logging operations that the people were asked to move down-river! Then came the conversion to Christianity, and the prohibition to keep a body longer than seven days in the house. The reasons given for this measure were also to prevent the Murut from wasting their time, efforts and rice on month-long drinking sessions. This, of course, it was proclaimed, was only for their own good, because they should start saving money – but nobody told them why and for what, and what was to come. Not only do these rules encroach into the unique culture of the Murut, who have practised these customs for hundreds, if not thousands of years without bankrupting themselves. It prompts, above all, commerce in town, because in order to conduct the funeral rites immediately, the Murut not only have to buy a ridiculously expensive coffin, but, by a lack of time allowance, they have to buy, in most cases, rice and other food provisions in huge quantities. To this they have to take up loans, perhaps even sell heirloom jars. The loans get them in debt for years, and the lost jars make them poor forever. Under this aspect, traditional practices wreck people indeed, and make customs questionable, even and especially in the eyes of the concerned people. The ones who profit in the end are the funeral undertakers and shopkeepers, and the state. But it is clear that otherwise the government here would never get money out of the Murut, most of them belonging to the so-called hardcore poor who evidentially do not pay any taxes. And besides installing solar energy to give the people a reason to buy radios and TV's (so they can listen to shampoo advertisements even in the remotest corners of the country), the government has little means to definitively bind the Murut to its ideas, and insert them as dumb and cheap labour in a system and a new world of debatable benefits.

While the body is in the house, the spouse of the dead is not allowed to move from its side. He or she has to remain close to the coffin or jar, wearing white, and is not allowed to do anything, or to go out for any other purpose than relieving himself or herself. Bating is also prohibited, amongst a people taking a bath in the river twice a day a tough ordeal.


Burial

The removal of the body from the house, and its final journey to the graveyard, is the dramatic culmination of the ceremonies. Again and again the coffin is opened, so that everybody might get a last glance of the defunct. Depending on how long the rites lasted this might not be a pretty sight, though, I was told. When the coffin is lifted, ancient brass gongs are sound. They are beaten to an archaic rhythm as old as mankind. Their ominous, deep intonations are mysteriously mesmerising, and what to Europeans are the bells, to the people of Borneo are the gongs. But while the chime of the church bells is far away, exalting or moving, the sound of the gong, beaten amidst the people, is immediately seizing. It starts in the bowels. From there the vibrations mount to the heart, and clutch it firmly in its eternal rhythm, which finally ends up in the throat, grasping and threatening to choke. It is then when the hair-raisingly beautiful mourning songs, those dreadfully sad lamentations of the Murut sound again across the river. Losing themselves in the forest, they acclaiming loudly, sobbingly and heartrendingly the life of the deceased. It is instant chaos, where it is impossible to remain unmoved. Only the closest of the family follow the coffin to the grave, where those who have prepared the site wait to close the vault. Many people are working, and soon nothing but the heavy, fresh concrete slab under the freshly erected grave-hut remains. A few prayers are said, a few charms erected, and then the whole party goes back to the longhouse. There, on the bank of the river, the entire population awaits the group from the graveyard with plates and buckets, anything which can be used in throwing water, and an incredible water battle ensues. This is unique to the Tataluan Murut. With the water battle they break the spell of the funeral. They chase away any bad spirits that could have accompanied those from the grave. They break efficiently the gloomy mood of the affair, and soon everybody’s face is lit up with a smile. The water battle is also the sign that all taboos that had to be observed for the past few days are now removed, and the swing in mood is palpable. Soon we were all back in the house, over the jars of tapai, but not as grieving congregation, but joyous gathering. Music is put on, and the people dance and are merry, of course the whole night through. It is difficult to stop Murut people from partying, especially after such a dreadful event, and the ‘post-funeral’ went on for another four days with the people still staying in the longhouse.

As for the family, the obligations are fulfilled. In the midst of the now happily partying people (on their own costs), it is discussed what heirloom is being distributed, and who gets what share. Those people who have arrived to help, and who have supported them in nature, like Albert’s parents in law, are given jars and cloth, which had been brought by others especially for the funeral, and this purpose. The society still relies very much on family and exchange. In a closed circle, it becomes obvious that this system works perfectly. It was only when money, government and new religions started braking into this circle with all sorts of rules, regulations and hindrances that such a funeral is now a very costly affair, preventing people from ‘developing’ and ‘succeeding’ indeed.


Epilogue

Having nothing to do any more in town, the husband of the deceased is now staying at the longhouse in Tataluan, with a few others who hang generally out there, in the forest, hunting and, well, partying. They also have to look after the rice-fields, and it is now about time that they move with their entire family to live in a hut in the fields. The ladies weed, and the men hunt, and for many of my young friends this is the most glorious period of the year. More so because it is the perfect excuse for not being in town and working for a meagre salary in some dull factory.

Now, they are also making tapai, which will be drunk after the harvest, and then again on the hundredth day of the funeral. I am not only invited to go there, it is expected that I appear, and I obviously will not miss this opportunity of disappearing again for a week or so in the jungle. There is life. Not always an easy life, but a passionate, vibrant, exalting life.
 

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