Death is not as final as you might think in Tana Toraja. After experiencing some of the customs and traditions of a Torajan funeral, we were about to learn about life after death and what happens to the bodies of the dead in this unique Indonesian culture.
The Torajan’s keep their dead in a variety of ways, but importantly they are never burned or kept in the ground. The ground is considered holy and sacred because it gives life, and so death must be dealt with separately.
In this part of the world, there are cave graves, decorated with tau tau (a wooden likeness of the person who has died)…
…and there are ‘hanging’ graves, with coffins suspended on platforms above the ground or with ropes.
There are problems with both of these – unfortunately cave graves are known to be looted if not guarded properly and many of the oldest tau tau have been stolen to be sold on the black market (apparently they can fetch a large sum!). The hanging graves don’t fare much better – after many years the wooden platforms or ropes holding the coffin can decay and crumble, sending the coffin (and the bones inside) crashing to the floor.
In one particular village the dead are even ‘resurrected’ for one day each year, when the community exhumes the bodies of their loved ones, washes them, re-clothes them and then walks them through the town like a zombie parade. Thankfully, we didn’t witness this – but we saw some gruesome images taken by a National Geographic photographer who was working in the area while we were there! (An article with his pictures has since been published here: WARNING – GRAPHIC CONTENT)
One of the more harrowing graves we saw was the baby grave. The Torajan’s consider that the journey to heaven is long and hard – not something a baby is capable of doing. So, when an infant dies before teething, the body is put into a special grave within a living tree. It is believed that, as the tree continues to grow, so will the child inside it, until it is strong enough to make the journey to the afterlife.
It’s not just death in Tana Toraja that is different – the sense of community and responsibility to family is stronger here than anywhere else we’ve been. A symbol of this is the area’s famous Tonkanon.
These are historic and traditional family homes that remain standing to this day. Although not many families still live in a Tonkanon, they are still owned by the families that built them and they are lovingly maintained by every family member. Important celebrations (such as funerals) also still take place here.
Then there’s the sacrifice made by the living members of a family when a close relative dies. We had already been to a funeral and seen the amount of effort that goes into arranging one, but now we were going to the market to get a sense of just how expensive these events can be.
Of course the general food and livestock is sold here, but what really draws in the crowds is the buffalo market.
Knowing how important and symbolic water buffalo are to Torajan culture, it’s really no surprise that there are so many at the market – but I never expected to see buffalos of so many different shapes, sizes and colours.
The real shock is the cost of one of these beasts. It’s not enough just so supply any old buffalo to your grandma’s funeral – you need to get the best possible breed, with white hair, blue eyes and specific fur patterns being extremely desirable.
Some of these can go for up to $50,000 – no exaggeration! It’s when you start to understand the true cost of these animals that you can see the significance of the gift they represent at funerals. At one point Dale and I heard about a particular funeral that happened a month or so before our visit that had a total of over 100 buffalo sacrifices – instead of thinking of the sacrifices themselves, both of us thought of the huge cost!
A person doesn’t bestow a gift like this without getting something in return though – they are safe in the knowledge that the family of the deceased will repay the debt in full when they die themselves. The sense of family obligation is incredibly strong, and our guide Otto told us that there’s no getting out of it – the entire family must attend a funeral (even weddings are not as important!) and if you can’t repay a debt personally, your children must.
A further expense is the coffin itself. These are exquisitely hand carved with intricate patterns, and then painted just as beautifully. As you can imagine, the cost is a hefty one!
Before the end of our trip, Otto took us high into the beautiful hills of the area to see more graves – and simply to take in the spectacular scenery.
Eventually we made it to the last tomb – a huge rock with various graves cut into the stone itself.
While we were there, a worker was busy cutting a new hole into the rock for another coffin to join the rest. Just one of the many preparations taking place for a funeral on the way.
Just spending a few days in Tana Toraja we could easily see how different the notion of life and death is here. Where we come from, life is purely for the living – but in this remote part of Sulawesi death is clearly part of life itself. In some ways, it seems a shame to place so much importance and so many resources on the dead. But the years of customs and traditions of the funeral preparations, the funerals themselves and the aftermath mean that the Torajan’s have a far ‘healthier’ relationship with death. These rituals, however expensive, highlight the care, affection and love of family, friends and neighbours (alive and dead) that exists in this corner of the world – and this is something we could all learn from.