Tongjkonan traditional houses Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja’s bizarre funeral rituals

  The region of Tana Toraja,  in South Sulawesi (Indonesia) offers complex and elaborated funeral rituals and burial sites. Their cult of the dead is one of the most peculiar and mysterious relation between life and death  and  is definately unique.Their practices include: treating the deceased as if they were alive, keeping their corpses at home for as long as 20 years and animal sacrifices. In Tana Toraja, death is such an important event , that their lives revolves around it.

Tongkonan, the traditional houses in Tana Toraja

   Although the majority of the Toraja people are Christians they combine their beliefs with their traditional religion “Aluk Dolo” or “Rituals of the ancestors”. Torajans don’t bury their dead immediately.  Instead, the dead will be kept in the family’s home for months or years before their funeral. This won’t be celebrated until they raise enough money for the ceremony. During this time the deceased is considered to be “ill”, thus food and drink must be served to him and family will take care of the body and dress him as if he was still alive. Yes,… I know what you’re thinking! No, the body doesn’t smell, it is treated with a mix of flowers and grasses to preserve it and avoid bad odours. As a fact we were invited to visit the body of a person who died a year ago, and still was kept there in the house, I won’t say it was pleasant, on the contrary everything related to the “eternal bye bye” makes me feel either sad and weird, but we though it could be offensive to say “no” to that kind of invitation and yes we have to admit that we were curious too.

Funeral ceremony


Tana toraja traditional clothes

 It is without doubt the main event in the Torajan social calendar, and a lot of effort, time and money is invested. Funerals are held in the dry season, from June to September.

  The family will expect hundreds of people from all over the region.  The whole village is involved to prepare such an event in advance.  The family are proud to welcome outsiders to the funeral, even though most of them don’t know the dead or family. They welcome guests dressed in their fine traditional clothes.

One of the most emotional scenes we saw was the act of dancing and singing. While guests keep silence a group of men dance and sing in a circle. They have closed eyes and some of them seem to be in a deep trance holding hands and making slow circular movements, representing the circle of life.

Relatives and friends hold hands in a circle , representing the circle of life, Tana Toraja funerals

  Now, the most important ritual in the ceremony, also the most shocking, is the water buffaloes and pigs sacrifice, so if you are very sensible be prepared for what you may see feels brutal to Western sensibilities.  Although we are animal lovers, and absolutely hate any animal suffering, we still wanted to be immersed in their culture and watching this was part of it.   But I can tell you how difficult was not to show our true emotions about the slaughter.

Torajans believe that the deceased will need the buffalo to get to the place where the soul will finally rest  (Puya), and as many buffaloes accompany the dead, the sooner he will rest in peace.

The animal sacrifice is part of the rituals of the ancestors in Tana Toraja

 The number of animals sacrificed will depend on the economical situation of the family, although it is known that many are indebted for life just to give their relatives a decent funeral.  A wealthy family will sacrifice between 24 and 300 water buffalos and hundreds of pigs. Buffaloes are killed by a cut on their throat and will bleed to death. After that meat is prepared and given to guests. Meat  is also cooked in a bamboo: “Pa’piong”, traditional palm wine “Ballo” and the famous rich in flavour Toraja coffee “Kopi” are also served during the ceremony as a symbol of gratitude.

The buffaloes heads will be placed in front of the house of kin and the numbers of horns will remain there forever symbolising the status of the family.

The number of buffalo's horns symbolize the status of the family, Tana Toraja funerals

  How to assist to a funeral ceremony?

  Well, there are guides providing a lift by car or motorbike for a sum of money wherever you go in town (Rantepao) on the streets, guesthouses, restaurants and so on.  As independent travellers we planned to do it ourselves, so we found out how to behave and what to bring to the family.  We rented a motorbike (Riana Guesthouse for 70.000 rupees) and bought tobacco and sugar as gifts. The challenge is to find out where a ceremony will take place!!!  Ask around as nearly everybody knows but not all of them will tell you because they want to take you there! If you are not that adventurous or don’t have much time, going with a guide is a good idea, as they will explain you all details and protocol and you won’t waste time driving around trying to find a funeral ceremony.

 Somehow, someone told us where to head for a ceremony and we got there! The family was surprised, as not many tourists venture to find and visit a funeral without a guide. The immediate family of the deceased received us with open arms and we were even invited to the family “box” (where they seat and share food) Lets say it was like been invited to seat and eat on the bride and groom’s wedding table!

Assisting a funeral at Tana Toraja, Indonesia

Although we were on a funeral ceremony, the atmosphere was unconcerned and joyful celebrating the good life this old man might have had.  We certainly enjoyed our time there with the family and they really made us feel like home, eating, drinking and interchanging questions about our different customs and culture, and of course we learned a lot about how this culture interact, celebrate and live with death.

If you are planing to visit this beautiful region in Sulawesi  this following post will help Top places to visit in Tana Toraja

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