25 Jan 2010

Travelblog: Death and social insurance

In Toraja, Sulawesi, the local people are Christians, but they retain customs from earlier times. One of them is the "big funeral," which will last 4-5 days. This funeral takes place weeks or months after someone's death. (They are buried soon after death, but everyone knows that this, second funeral is the "official" one...) During these days, there are many ceremonies and feasts, and everyone is invited.

Rich people have bigger funerals, where there is food for all. The bigger your funeral, the higher your standing (meritocratic social standing). This is an obvious redistribution of wealth from rich to poor.

The gift you bring to the funeral is written down; when one of yours dies, a gift of equal value is brought.

Although death cannot be timed, the formal (second) funeral is timed, and it shares wealth among the community, over time, spacing out the feasts. The biggest feature of the feasts is the meat of water buffalo, and the more important/rich you are, the more buffalo die at your feasts. The one I attended (in this photo) was a "30 buffalo" affair. All of these buffalo were contributed by the six children of the deceased -- all men in their 50s -- and we were told that this was a rich family.

Because people must save for funerals, which can happen at any time, they are buffered against other problems (crop failures), which improves long-run survival.

Oh, and water makes an appearance in the Torajan death tradition: People use it as a general blessing (sprinkling it on buffalos to be sacrificed and on fires cooking food for attendees) and leave bottles of it next to graves. (They also leave bottles of tuak, a local liquor.)

Bottom Line: Communities without taxes and insurance find ways to pay taxes and provide insurance. That's a human thing, not a bureaucratic plan.

1 comment:

  1. Communities without taxes and insurance find ways to pay taxes and provide insurance.

    The key word is "communities." Isn't there a population size limit on this kind of voluntary redistribution of wealth?

    Perhaps the US ought to disaggregate. :)


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