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Taking in Tana Toraja – home of the living dead

When we arrived in Sulawesi, we weren’t sure what to expect. We had heard about a place here called Tana Toraja, which is known for its unique funerals and burial rites. What we found was one of the most moving and authentic cultural experiences we’ve seen anywhere in the world.

On the way to Tana Toraja we watched the scenery change from built up city to tropical palm tree forests and vast fields with grazing water buffalo

On the way to Tana Toraja we watched the scenery change from built up city to tropical palm tree forests and vast fields with grazing water buffalo

Picked up by our guide – Otto – at the airport, he explained as we passed thousands of mosques that Sulawesi is almost entirely Muslim, apart from one region – Tana Toraja (Land of Toraja). This place is home to around half a million people indigenous to Sulawesi who practice Aluk To Dolo (way of the ancestors) combined with Christianity, which was brought by Dutch missionaries.

Our first sunset in Sulawesi

Our first sunset in Sulawesi

It is this Aluk To Dolo that we had come to see – traditions and customs unique to the region that has somehow been protected from outside influence and passed down from generation to generation. Otto explained that one of the best displays of Aluk To Dolo is its funeral ceremonies and, as luck would have it, there was a ceremony beginning the next day.

Torajan funerals are huge affairs. They can take years to plan, months to prepare for and the event itself lasts up to a week. Passing small towns on the way to the funeral we would be attending we saw many other funerals being prepared for – with temporary houses made from bamboo being assembled for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of guests to stay near the dead person’s family home.

This temporary housing forms a funeral 'village' of sorts, which is then abandoned after the event is over

This temporary housing forms a funeral ‘village’ of sorts, which is then abandoned after the event is over

Otto explained that a funeral is the Torajan’s most important ceremony. A dead person is not considered truly dead until the funeral rites have been carried out. This means that the ‘living’ dead body will remain in the house with the family until the ceremony takes place – which may not be for years.

The body is embalmed by the family, dressed and laid out in the family home. Torajan houses are traditionally not that large, so it’s very common for the family to sleep next to the body. Otto explained that this is a special time for the family – a time for grief, but also it is a time to enjoy being with your loved one – the last time you can talk to them, see them, hold them. During this time, family and friends come from all over to see the body and pay their respects.

The white flag outside this traditional Torajan home shows that a body lies inside the house. The flag will remain until the funeral takes place.

The white flag outside this traditional Torajan home shows that a body lies inside the house. The flag will remain until the funeral takes place.

My initial reaction was surprise and disgust followed closely by fear – I caught myself hoping that we wouldn’t actually see a dead person – but when Otto asked me why I felt that way, I couldn’t explain it. My horror seemed totally illogical – if a body had belonged to someone I loved, why wouldn’t I want to be near it for as long as I could? Why would I want to have a burial or cremation so soon? The Toraja’s clear love and respect for their dead made our traditional western practices of quick burials or cremations seem so cold.

Children in traditional Torajan dress waiting for a funeral to begin

Children in traditional Torajan dress waiting for a funeral to begin

I was a little apprehensive about attending the funeral of someone we didn’t know and had never even met, but Otto assured us that our presence was seen as a very good thing. ‘This ceremony is a show of how important, loved and admired the dead person is’, he explained. ‘The more guests attend, the more the person is loved. And the further away someone has come to visit, the better too. If people come from all over the world to attend the ceremony, it shows the dead person is very important indeed.’

When we arrived at the funeral, Otto guided us through the crowd. I was shocked at the atmosphere of the occasion – it felt like a festival. Groups of people stood around chatting, water buffalo were paraded around by their owners, a master of ceremonies voice boomed out over speakers, and camera crews ran about filming the occasion for the family to look back on.

There, in the middle of it all, was two coffins. This wasn’t a funeral for just one person like we had expected – it was a ceremony for an elderly woman and her adult daughter.

There, in the middle of it all, was two coffins. This wasn’t a funeral for just one person like we had expected – it was a ceremony for an elderly woman and her adult daughter.

We arrived just in time for the funeral procession – where the entire funeral party (guests, buffalo, coffins and all) would travel a few hundred metres down the road and back – a clear display of the size of the ceremony to the rest of the community.

The coffin bearers would shout and cry out with joy, while bouncing the coffin around on its platform. At times, I was worried the coffin – which was rocking about wildly – would fall off completely, but Otto laughed off my concerns and explained that they were ‘playing’ with the body – giving it a proper send off.

The coffin bearers would shout and cry out with joy, while bouncing the coffin around on its platform. At times, I was worried the coffin – which was rocking about wildly – would fall off completely, but Otto laughed off my concerns and explained that they were ‘playing’ with the body – giving it a proper send off.

When the coffins were brought back to the home, they were placed in a special platform created specifically for the occasion high above the crowd – so the bodies would have the best view of all the festivities.

endofprocession

The bodies being placed pride of place on a special platform above everyone

The next part of the ceremony was the bit I had the most trouble accepting – the Buffalo sacrifice. Water buffalo are incredibly important to the Torajan people. They are extremely expensive and the number of buffalo slaughtered at your funeral is a clear show of how important and well-loved you were as a person. The buffalo are given as gifts to the family of the dead person – often in assurance that a buffalo will be ‘repaid’ in kind at the giver’s own funeral. The majority are sacrificed (one for each day of the ceremony, and then the rest on the day of the ‘mass sacrifice’), but some are even used as payment for certain things – such as the coffins, graves and statues.

There were many buffalo at this event - showing the wealth and popularity of the deceased

There were many buffalo at this event – showing the wealth and popularity of the deceased

There was only one buffalo sacrificed during our visit, and it was enough. A man led one of the buffalo into a circle of people, drew a machete from his waist and made one quick and simple blow to the poor animal’s throat. I watched with teary eyes as the buffalo staggered and then sank to the floor – blood pouring from the gaping hole in its neck. I looked at the people in the circle around me and I was disturbed to see tourists straining for a picture of the life ebbing away from the animal. Otto could see I was upset and told me this is a completely authentic and significant part of life (and death) in Tana Toraja. It’s not something that’s done purely for the benefit of paying tourists – it is tradition that has been practiced for hundreds of years and will continue for many years to come. He also reassured me that this buffalo’s death had huge purpose – it is not only of ceremonial importance, but its body will feed the entire funeral party and no part of the animal is wasted. Knowing the animal didn’t die purely because of tradition made me feel slightly better.

The buffalo we saw slaughtered was quickly turned into food for the funeral guests. Here the meat is traditionally cooked inside bamboo

The buffalo we saw slaughtered was quickly turned into food for the funeral guests. Here the meat is traditionally cooked inside bamboo

With the buffalo’s body taken away to be prepared for sharing out, it was our turn to meet some of the family. Otto introduced us to the nephew and cousin of the deceased, who invited us into his family’s temporary home for food and refreshments. In return for their hospitality, we presented a gift of cigarettes, which was gratefully accepted and promptly shared out amongst the family elders.

We were welcomed into the family with open arms and even given tea and snacks before the main meal was served

We were welcomed into the family with open arms and even given tea and snacks before the main meal was served

The last part of the ceremony was the Buffalo fighting. Unlike the sacrifice, this tradition has little in the way of ceremonial significance and is practiced only as entertainment for the guests, which we saw gleefully placing bets and shouting out joyfully at the proceedings.

The buffalo at our funeral were a bit reluctant, but there was a few scuffles

The buffalo at our funeral were a bit reluctant, but there was a few scuffles

This event is certainly one of the most unusual experiences we have ever encountered. Fascinating, jubilant and – at times – hard to watch, the customs and traditions we witnessed were so far removed from anything that we are used to at home. But, at the centre of it all is the simple foundation that bridges the differences in our cultures – just like funerals at home, this was an event to show the outpouring of love, respect and admiration for someone who is gone, but not forgotten.