Funerals R Us

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Flag of Indonesia  , South Sulawesi,
Friday, June 1, 2012

The Torajan people of South Sulawesi are well known for two things- their very unusual homes and their almost obsessive preoccupation with death and the related ritualistic funerals. My philosophy on death has always been quite simple- if you don't think about it, talk about it, or plan for it, then it just won't happen (perhaps a touch unrealistic but it keeps me in a happy place), so being surrounded by the concept for days has me well outside my comfort zone. DH, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy picking up ideas for our own ritualistic demise and was constantly bouncing them off me (which coincidentally is when I had my hands over my ears and was humming the national anthem very loudly).

The Tarajan people celebrate death via two funerals- one immediately following the death, with the larger celebration seemingly dictated by when the family can afford to host the event and purchase the livestock required for sacrifices. The gap between the two can be quite long (we were told that a year is quite typical- Torajans traditionally believe that death is not a sudden, abrupt event, but a gradual process toward Puya- the land of souls, or afterlife) and, while waiting, the treated body is actually sitting in the family home- usually in one of the bedrooms!! If you enter the home during that time, it is considered good form to ask permission of the deceased to both enter and leave (seemed quite shocking at first but it did bring back memories of walking in and out of the offices of a couple of the executives at my most recent workplace).

The soul of the deceased is thought to linger around the village until the funeral ceremony is completed. The second funeral is typically the bigger deal of the two and can run from two days to a week and although they are village affairs, they are also open to anyone as part of Torajan hospitality. And since most families tend to schedule the funerals for the summer dry season (a time when extended family can also make their way back) it did seem as though death was sweeping through the communities at the time of our visit. 

The richer and more powerful the individual who passed, the more expensive and elaborate the funeral. The Torajan population has a history of class structure (nobles, commoners, and slaves) and, while slavery has been abolished, the extensive death feast is normally the purview of the higher class only (but that may have more to do with money than class structure these days). It was a bit odd to see such elaborate ancient traditions being practiced by the so-called elite of society (in most other places we've visited, this group tends to be the first to 'westernize' and turn their back on the past). The first stage of the feast is an extensive visitation with pig-bearing friends and family- the ceremonial host site, called a rante, is usually prepared in a large, open area where shelters for audiences, rice barns, and other ceremonial funeral structures are specially made by the family of the deceased. Flute music, funeral chants, songs and poems, are all traditional Toraja expressions of grief.

The most well known component of the ritual is the slaughter of water buffalo- the more powerful the person who died, the more buffalo killed at the death feast. We watched as a good number of buffalo were led into the square, a fortunate few were donated to church and community groups, and the rest were horrifically slaughtered in rapid succession by young men using machetes- we had expected to see a buffalo sacrificed, but the bloodletting and maniacal shouting that took place left me stunned and slack-jawed (DH had left the area and was hiding behind a building with her eyes closed). 

Please be advised that I won't be posting any pictures of this horror show- some things are just best left unseen. 

Buffalo carcasses, including their heads, are usually lined up in a field waiting for their owner, who is in the "sleeping stage". Torajans believe that the deceased will need the buffalo to make the journey and that they will be quicker to arrive in the afterlife if they have many buffalo. Once the death feast is complete, there are three methods of burial: the coffin may be laid in a cave, or in a carved stone grave, or hung off a cliff. The coffin contains any possessions that the deceased will need in the afterlife. The most bizarre of the group are the stone graves carved out of a cliff face or huge boulders- this form of grave is usually expensive and takes a few months to complete. Often these stone caves are large enough to accommodate a whole family. A wood-carved effigy, called Tau Tau (ostensibly a reasonable likeness of the deceased sometimes topped with the hair of the deceased), is usually placed in the cave or attached to the cliff looking out over the land. These things were usually spookier than the skulls littering the grave area.

The coffin of a baby or child may be hung from ropes on a cliff face or from a tree. This hanging grave usually lasts for years, until the ropes rot and the coffin falls to the ground. And one of the most unusual baby grave-sites we saw (although no longer used), was a tree which contained the remains of several infants- apparently the sap is of a milky white consistency that people of the time believed would nourish the child as mothers milk, and the bodies were inserted upright into the trunk so the deceased would grow vertically and up toward the heavens.

Beyond the constant reminders of death, the traditional Torajan homes were a big part of the local landscape- I'm sure that at some point these will fade to the few required for tourism but right now they are everywhere and used for both homes and for storage. Tongkonan stand high on round wooden piles (to keep the rats out), topped with a layered split-bamboo roof shaped in a sweeping curved arc, and they are incised with red, black, white, and yellow detailed wood carvings on the exterior walls. As a bow to the modern world, some of the roofing was now metal, and more than one of these ancient structures had a huge satellite dish parked out front.

And to balance the many sombre funeral events we attended, we managed to get invited to a wedding (although some might suggest that a wedding is simply another funeral ceremony with the guest of honour dressed in white instead of black??). The church portion of the wedding was a carbon copy of the cure for insomnia we see in North American but the reception looked like it was going to be a great open air party. We also did a number of hikes in the surrounding countryside taking in some spectacular vistas and wandering through an extensive array of rice fields (is any crop in the world more labour intensive than rice- absolutely backbreaking!).

Toraja was a fascinating stop on our world tour and despite the focus on dying and death, I found this area, and Sulawesi in general, captivating. All the people dressed in black had DH renewing her demands that I finish up my will- according to her it's a very simple document- regardless of how I might pass (poisoning, blunt force trauma, electrocution in a bath tube,...), I leave everything to her and she will ensure that I am properly buried in a cave?? Perhaps it's the superstitions from my sporting days but I'm still convinced that just minutes after completing a death document/will a bus with my name on it will come speeding around the corner (or stampeding buffaloes in this part of the world?). Maybe I'll just keep dragging my feet on that one.

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