Home Asia Travel Tana Toraja Funerals – Life, Death and Mummies in Indonesia

Tana Toraja Funerals – Life, Death and Mummies in Indonesia

by Team Hazard
12 comments

Quick Facts about Tana Toraja Funerals

How long does a Torajan funeral take?

The funeral lasts for four days, but preparations can take years.

What is the traditional house in Tana Toraja called?

The traditional house in Toraja is called a Tongkonan. It’s sweeping roof architecture is designed to resemble the horns of the buffalo the Torajans revere so much.

Do Torajans really talk to dead people?

Yes, in a manner of speaking. The preserved body of a deceased loved one can reside in the family home for years before it is buried, In that time, the family visits with the dead family member, talking to them and bringing them small food and gifts, because they see their loved one as just sleeping. It isn’t until the night before the burial, when the coffin is closed and turned to the west, that the mummified relative is considered truly dead.

I first heard about the unique funeral ceremonies of the people in Tana Toraja, Indonesia from a travel show many years ago, probably Lonely Planet, when they had their show on cable. It was enthralling. Not only did they have extensive funeral rites, but the Torajan people buried their dead in stone graves, high up on cliffs. On top of that, every few years they remove the corpses from those graves, re-dress them, spend time with them and generally pay tribute.

I was fascinated.

When we went to Indonesia, I knew we had to make time for a Toraja trip and see this for ourselves.

Our Tana Toraja tour on the island of south Sulawesi was intense, and surprising. There’s market day, where animals are sold for sacrifice. There are graves carved into giant stones and cliff-sides and marked with dolls, photos and relics. And baby tree graves that sound so depressing, but are touching, beautiful places.

We got to attend part of an elaborate four day Torajan funeral in Indonesia, with the families and friends of the deceased. We even got to see a mummified couple. She’d been dead five years, him five months, but they were buried at the same time.

Let us take you on this amazing journey.

*This page contains affiliate links and we might make a commission if you purchase something by clicking through our link. This creates no additional cost for you.

Tana Toraja Tour – Livestock Market

Difficulty Rating:  2

Easy, most people of even moderate mobility can do it.

Note: We specifically tried to avoid any gruesome imagery, but if you are vegan, or sensitive to discussions of animals being sacrificed for traditional beliefs and practices, you may want to skip this section. CLICK HERE to jump ahead.

Our introduction to Toraja Indonesia started with a 10-hour bus ride from Makassar to Rantepao, a city in the mountainous region that serves as the center of Tana Toraja. It was a luxury bus that was reasonably comfortable. We lucked out because it wasn’t full and Tim and I were able to each have an empty seat next to us. If you’re of larger size, I’d recommend buying the extra seats as they’re not that expensive and with the twisty mountain roads and long ride, you’ll be happy to have the extra space. Rantepao is a not an amazing city, but it gets the job done in this traditional mountain community with only a single route to the outside world.

Tim Dodging Cowpies at Livestock Market in Toraja, Indonesia

We had a pre-arranged the tour with a Toraja tour guide I met on a Facebook group. I’ll mention that I sought him out after seeing his posts about taking other people on trips through the region. Ino has extensive knowledge of the area, and the people, because he’s from there. He customized the Toraja tour package for our needs, taking Tim’s blindness into account. He was exactly the kind of guide we needed.

First day of the tour was the livestock market. For city kids like me and Tim, this was both interesting, and a bit shocking.

The water buffalo they sell are impressive animals and are well taken care of. They do sometimes use a device that requires the animal to keep its head raised, not exceedingly so, in order to make its shoulders and chest broader. Overall, there is respect for the buffalo, even if it is on its way to be sacrificed. Great buffalo are highly prized.

Bearded Buffalo at Livestock Market in Toraja - Indonesia
Buffalo are revered. A strong, beautiful buffalo given at a funeral is a grand gift.

As we walked through the livestock market it amazed me that there were so many animals. But as the week progressed, we learned just how many funeral ceremonies there are, and how many animals are involved, especially when dealing with rich, important families. Attendees gift the livestock to the host family based on their closeness, and their own wealth and a detailed record is kept. I’ll get into more of that later.

Pig Transported on Motorbike from Livestock Market in Toraja - Indonesia

If there was any animal treatment that bothered me that day at the livestock market, it was the pigs. Not everyone can afford to bring a buffalo to a funeral, but it’s expected that everyone can afford a pig. Most of the pigs are strapped down to bamboo pallets, ready for transport, and they remain this way for the day. Once back at the farm, the pigs are released to run around, but it was hard seeing them all bound like that.

Cock Fight at Toraja Livestock Market - Indonesia

There were also roosters. Beautiful birds that would unfortunately end up in cock fights. While technically illegal, out in the more rural areas it’s still a common form of entertainment. At the market, owners were quick to exhibit their bird’s prowess and aggression in mock confrontations with other roosters.

Pig for Housewarming Celebration in Toraja - Indonesia

While most of the animals were purchased for sacrifice at funerals, some would be used in housewarming ceremonies. We saw a pig (not bound) being taken away in a miniature bamboo house adorned with leaves. The Torajan people believe its sacrifice will bring prosperity to a new homeowner. The whole thing fit in the back of a truck.

Afterward, we went to the local market that sold a myriad of goods, from dried fish to locally grown coffee, household goods, textiles and pet birds. This was where we learned that the tallest people Indonesians plan for are about 5’7″ (170cm). The awnings in the market often drooped to just above my head. Poor Tim had to navigate ducking down the entire way.

Stone and Cliff-side Graves in Toraja

Difficulty Rating:  5-6

Easy for an average fit person.

Some challenge for less-than-fit or impaired people.

*Some, or most, challenging parts (stairs and such) are optional.

Farmland has always been precious in the mountainous region of Tana Toraja. This is part of the reason for the practice of burying bodies in stone graves, rather than in the ground. Sometimes it’s done in cliff-sides, but some families lay claim to huge rocks that serve as crypts. It can take months to carve out the space needed for a grave. This is part of the reason Torajan mummies are kept in the home for so long. A square chalked on the stone indicates the spot for the next grave to be carved.

The front of the graves are covered with little wooden doors, often set back from the face of the stone. Photos of the deceased, flowers and offerings of food and water often fill these nooks. Around the graves are signs of tribute and celebration. Once something is taken to a grave site, it is never returned to the home for fear of bringing the energy of the dead with it. Even the elaborate biers they use to transport the bodies are not re-used. They are left near the graves, like a recent history of family deaths, while they wait to be reclaimed by nature.

Dolls, or tau tau, are often placed in groups on the face, or near the entrance to family graves. Tau tau are effigies and represent each of the family members. The more it actually resembles the dead person, the more it costs to make. Only the richest of families have a wholly representative collection of dolls at their grave sites.

These images are from the Lemo burial site. It’s impressive, and amazing, almost unreal – like something out of storyland.

Graves are visited regularly and offerings refreshed. Once a year, there is a season where people remove their dead ancestors from their graves, if the bodies are in good enough condition. They give them a new clothes, and spend a few hours talking to them, and giving them offerings.

They’ll even take pictures with the whole (living) family before returning them to their stony graves. Not every corpse is removed yearly, but every few years they are attended to. This is why some people mistakenly refer to Torajan mummies as walking dead. Unfortunately, we weren’t here during this time, but we do have pictures of Toraja mummies later on.

The graves appeal strongly to my sculptural, artistic sense. I always preferred working in 3D; texture and form interest me. These graves are all about hand-craftsmanship. Each is individual and shows that the person inside was cared for and loved. The dolls, even when they’re not exact representations, are expressive and have personality. It’s easy to imagine how they represent real people.

Our guide, Ino, explained why Torajans believe in bringing offerings long after a person was dead. It’s a cycle. They believe that by bringing offerings, by helping the dead, then the dead will do things on their side that will help that person in their life. They ask for help, by giving help. Give and take, the cycle of life.

Kambira – Toraja Dead Baby Tree Graves

Difficulty Rating:  3

Easy, most people of even moderate mobility can do it.

Note: This section is not as depressing as it sounds, but if you think it is going to bother you, you may want to skip ahead. CLICK HERE to skip ahead.

Torajan baby tree graves have not been used in a long time. Probably much due to the advances of modern medicine. The baby graves that do exist are all from older generations.

Babies who died before they got their first tooth were not buried in the stone graves of their families. Instead, their graves were carved into Tarra trees.

Of course, the little covers over the graves are heartbreaking. And a tree can have so many of them. But that’s many generations, you might want to remind yourself. These babies didn’t all die at one time.

Tarra Tree with Baby Graves in Toraja - Indonesia
Kambira baby graves were carved into Tarra trees because of the milky appearance of the sap.

The thing is, there’s a reason babies this young are buried in the Tarra tree. It’s because this kind of tree has white sap, like mother’s milk. The tree nourishes the baby’s soul until it can grow and pass on beyond the branches of the tree on its journey back to heaven, before they are sent down again.

I thought the journey to see the baby graves was going to be really depressing, but it was just the opposite. It made me feel hopeful, and uplifted. Still sad that the babies died, but glad they were going to get another go around.

Tana Toraja Funerals

Difficulty Rating:  5

Easy for an average fit person.

Some challenge for less-than-fit or impaired people.

Oh, where to start with Torajan funerals.

Funerals are huge affairs that usually take months, or more likely years, to plan and execute. Much of this is the family saving to be able to afford the event. Dying isn’t cheap in Toraja.

During this time, the mummified bodies of the deceased are kept in the family home. Sometimes the Tana Toraja mummy is in an above room, lying in an open coffin. Sometimes they have a ‘home’ of their own. The family is truly living with the dead.

Family members still visit with the mummies as if they were alive. In fact, while they’re lying there, facing west, they’re not considered dead. They’re just sick. It isn’t until the night before the actual funeral that their bodies are turned to have their head facing south that the family acknowledges their death.

Once someone has a funeral scheduled, they start construction on temporary bamboo housing where the invited families will sit to view the event. Depending on the importance of the family and the size of the funeral, this can be quite extensive. The funeral ceremony in Toraja that we attended had more than 20 families present, with 40-100 members each.

I can’t even imagine the complexity of all the other arrangements, though I’m sure there’s a strong system in place as everything seemed to run smoothly.

Funerals in the Tana Toraja region are four day affairs.

Day 1 is called Ma’pasonglo. It’s the day the body is moved from the home and placed in the Lakkian, a temporary tower.

Day 2 is when the attending families line up and make a formal entrance, followed by the livestock they’ve brought as gifts. This is the day we attended – with a surprise preview of day 3. We’ll tell you more of this in a moment.

Day 3 is the day they sacrifice all of the animals. Everyone who attends the funeral receives some of the meat. Those that participate, or help in some way, receive the best portions.

Day 4 is the day they take the body from the Lakkian for the burial ceremony to be placed in the grave, with all appropriate Torajan rituals.

Toraja Funeral Day 2 and Surprise Sacrifices

The events of a Torajan funeral ceremony last all day, for each of the four days, and people come and go as their lives require. We arrived and after getting Tim over some rough terrain, we joined one of the families attending the funeral.

The bamboo structure for attendees is raised off the ground by a small distance. Inside there are two levels, the back one being higher by a little over a foot. The only place to sit is on the floor, which was difficult for Tim, but they made accommodations so he could use the upper level as a seat/step.

I should mention that Indonesian people are very kind and understanding when it comes to helping people. We found this to be true throughout the country.

Life was happening in the shaded cover of the bamboo structure as the funeral ritual went on. Tea was being made, food prepared and shared, and drinks passed around. Each family had a designated space noted by a number on the outside, though there was much crossing over. In this region, where everyone knew each other, this is to be expected. Every funeral is an opportunity to keep family and friends close and bring the community together.

The bamboo housing surrounded a grassy arena where all of the events took place. At the front, the host family waited in a Tongkonan, a traditionally shaped Toraja house, while attending families filed in and filled seats on a covered veranda while the animals are brought forth and presented.

Presentation of Livestock Sacrifices at Torajan Funeral on Sulawesi - Indonesia
Pigs and water buffalo are presented by funeral guests on the second day of the funeral.

Each animal is tallied and registered so that when the hosting family attends one of their guest’s funerals, they can return in kind. In fact, when people who aren’t so rich hold a funeral, it’s required to ask ahead if you can contribute a buffalo. It would be poor form to put the burden of buying a buffalo onto a family that can’t afford it. As I mentioned earlier, everyone can afford a pig.

Intermittently, there would be chanting performances by men dressed in black and sometimes families were preceded by drummers and kids in costume. An announcer would speak, calling out the names of the family members, and other business. A family files in, that family files out. Rinse. Repeat.

Meanwhile, life continued in the bamboo hut. People were free to go anywhere at any time. No portion of events were so solemn that everyone had to stop what they were doing.

Note: There’s more talk of animal sacrifice in this next section. If that’s going to bother you, please CLICK HERE to skip ahead.

Then we learned that two buffalos would be sacrificed that afternoon. You see, traditional Torajan beliefs are practiced alongside Islam and Christianity. Most of Toraja is Christian, but there was a Muslim family in attendance and their beliefs require the buffalo to be sacrificed in a certain way. So they would kill one buffalo the Torajan way, and one the Muslim way, on this day.

I was intrigued and yet not sure I wanted to see this. City kid, remember? But I don’t like to shy away from new experiences, or pass judgment. Besides, I eat meat. It would be pretty hypocritical of me not to acknowledge where my food comes from.

The buffalo were brought out and the announcer spoke and called their names with great respect for the sacrifice they were about to make.

By this time I had left the bamboo hut with Ino to get a closer view. I actually took video, or thought I did. Part of me is glad I goofed and didn’t hit the button properly. While interesting, I don’t know if it’s something I need to see again and again.

I’m not going to describe the sacrifices here. Let me just say that the Torajan method seemed more humane and peaceful, with the least distress for the buffalo, even if its death wasn’t as quick.

A group of men set immediately to skinning and removing the meat from the animals. Ceremonies continued on around their work, but they completed their job in just a few hours.

Meat was handed out to the appropriate attendees. From death, there is life. I was surprised when one of the men back in the hut had strips of meat dangling from a thin rope and he placed it on the floor of the hut. Germs, dirt, no refrigeration – what? But Ino explained that they would take the meat home and smoke it for preservation. All of those things I was worried about were made irrelevant by their traditional food handling methods.

Toraja Funeral Day 2 – After the Sacrifice

After that, I got to wander through the kitchen area where, after an awkward moment, I shared some candy I had and got laughed at by the staff. I laughed at the awkwardness, too.

Then I went to see the guests of honor. It was an elderly couple, and the family waited until both had passed so they could be buried together. No mummies here, though. The coffins are closed when the funeral starts. (See the next section for all the Torajan mummy action.)

I stayed for a few minutes to show respect and then returned with Ino to the hut where Tim waited. Tim had chosen not to go wandering around with us because the terrain was challenging for his poor vision. The ground was uneven and he’d already had a tough time getting in that day, not to mention the unexpected steps and crowds. Also, this early in the trip, our fitness wasn’t the greatest so that added to his decision.

We thanked the family that had invited us. I thanked them in English hoping the sentiment would come through but since they couldn’t understand, all it got was a laugh. Ino gave me the words for the right thing to say and I did a bad job of mimicking him, got another laugh, but also got our appreciation across before we left.

Tongkonan – the Traditional Torajan House

The tongkonan is the traditional house of the Toraja people. The Toraja architecture is most notable for its sweeping bamboo roof that resembles the shape of a water buffalo’s horns. Where once the family ate and slept, now grain is stored. Certain tongkonan house the ‘sleeping’ loved ones that await their funeral. The high, arching roof keeps the space cool and safe, even in the Indonesian heat.

Tongkonan - Tana Toraja Traditional House - side view
The sweeping shape of the roof resembles a buffalo’s horns

Tongkonan sit atop tall piles. Originally, the buffalo were corralled underneath the houses. One of the older women we spoke to made it clear that not living above smelly buffalo anymore was a major improvement in their lives.

The painted carved patterns on the tongkonan and called Pa’ssura , which means writing. These detailed tiles represent religious and cultural ideas. In a time when oral traditions were strong, everyone could read and understand the meaning of the Pa’ssura.

On the close-up of the front of the tongkonan, you can see a replica of a buffalo head and the very real horns from all the sacrifices the family has received over the years. This tongkonan belongs to a very wealthy family.

Mummies in Toraja

Difficulty Rating:  5

Easy for an average fit person.

Some challenge for less-than-fit or impaired people.

We visited a woman’s home where funeral preparations were in progress for her elderly parents. The bamboo structure was partially built, land was being cleared and workers were everywhere. The funeral was still five months away.

Most importantly for us, her deceased parents lay waiting in open coffins in the family tongkonan, and she was willing to let us visit.

My mix of reverence and fascination made me hesitant to take pictures of the mummies that were her parents. But I was assured it was okay, so I snapped a few. Again my artistic sense took over and I studied anatomy and texture, never forgetting that these were real people that had long, full lives. I also felt very privileged to be allowed this viewing. Tim had made the trek up the stairs as well but the room was dark so he couldn’t see much detail. That didn’t diminish his appreciation of this rare opportunity.

In the case of this couple in the pictures, when grandma died, they knew grandpa’s time would be coming soon enough, so they put off burying her so the couple could be buried together. This cut down on funeral costs as well. Grandpa outlived his wife by 5 years. By the time they had the funeral, he’d have been dead for 10 months.

I wondered what it was like for him to live, knowing she was waiting for him in death. Was that a comfort, or a burden? Did he talk to her frequently? Was he surprised to outlive her by so long?

As for the daughter, there was some sadness, but not deep, long term grief. I think that the elongated funeral process gives people time to come to terms with their loved ones passing. Also, the Toraja people have a different view of death as their loved ones are never truly gone. Your ancestors are always with you.

By the way, if you look at the pictures, the wife was preserved with traditional methods whereas the husband was embalmed using modern techniques. Even with five years difference, it looks like modern science wins here. This might not be so important if they didn’t remove the bodies every few years to visit and put on fresh clothes. With modern methods, he’s going to be well-dressed for centuries.

Conclusion

With all of the sacrifice and elaborate ceremonies, it might be easy to miss that the Torajan beliefs surrounding death show a deep understanding and appreciation of life and its cycles. Instead of fighting against the inevitable, they embrace it.

If you read through this entire post and are intrigued, we highly recommend that you visit Tanah Toraja on Sulawesi in Indonesia. There aren’t enough words here to truly describe the full experience. Seeing in depth how another culture deals with death is an amazing opportunity. This is a rich, cultural encounter that needs to be fully appreciated in person, if you can make the Toraja trip.


Don’t forget to get your Lonely Planet Guide to Indonesia. It’s a huge and amazing country and there are tons of things to see and do besides visit Toraja mummies. From hiking volcanoes to visiting orangutans, snorkeling and diving, and braving the Komodo Dragons, Indonesia is the place to go.

Postscript

If you do go, and would like us to set you up with a great guide, contact us and we’ll get you in touch with Ino. Whether you’re on a backpacker Toraja budget, want to do additional Tana Toraja trekking, or just do a tour like ours, Ino can come up with a customized Toraja tour package to suit your needs.

Feel free to ask questions in the comment section. We’ll try to answer them, or get the answers if we’re not sure. We want to represent Torajan traditions as accurately as we can.

Hey! Check these out

12 comments

Loredana April 14, 2019 - 1:28 am

Wow – the Torajan have indeed a special connection with the death. Each element has a special symbol – I had no idea about the children being buried in the three, for instance. Goes to show that we always have to keep an open mind and try to discover and understand different cultures.

Reply
Team Hazard April 14, 2019 - 11:30 am

Agreed. The best way to approach anything is with an open mind.

Reply
Sapna April 13, 2019 - 9:13 am

That’s something incredible. I didn’t know about such a tradition and mummies in Indonesia. This is such a unique and learning experience.

Reply
Team Hazard April 13, 2019 - 9:20 am

Yes. We love learning about cultures other than our own.

Reply
Alma April 13, 2019 - 8:50 am

Reminds me of the tradition in Madagascar. Apparently they have a ceremony for ‘turning of the bones’ and re-wrap the corpses in fresh fabric. Quite fascinating!

Reply
Team Hazard April 13, 2019 - 9:21 am

Ooh. I hadn’t heard about that in Madagascar. We’ll have to look into it. Then we can compare notes. Glad you liked it!

Reply
Bella April 13, 2019 - 8:10 am

Wow, these are so creepy! But also fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

Reply
Team Hazard April 13, 2019 - 9:22 am

Ha! Creepy but fascinating. I like that. We’re happy to share what we learn. Thank you.

Reply
Fiona and Jerry April 12, 2019 - 10:01 pm

Hi Trina and Tim
I want to say I read about the Torajan funerary practices a few years back in National Geographic. Cultural differences are fascinating and no less so when it comes to death. From a personal standpoint, I am from Ireland; back in the day when someone died there was traditionally a wake held whereby the deceased loved one would be laid out in the home and friends, relatives and neighbours would all come to visit and pay their respects over a cup of tea or a wee tipple. The tradition of holding a wake gave way to funeral parlours over the years but lately there has been a resurgence in wakes. My Mum died in 2016 and we had a wake for her at home. I cannot convey how much comfort it brought me to have Mum at home surrounded by family and friends, as opposed to having her laid out in a funeral parlour with strict visiting hours, after which she would just be there alone.

I know an Irish wake is different to the Torajan burial tradition but I can see similarities, Your post was absolutely fascinating and I agree there is a beautiful sense of hope and return in the baby graves.

This is what travel is about, experiencing cultures and cultural differences that take us outside of our comfort zone.
Thanks for sharing such a brilliant piece.
Fiona and Jerry (Your Drifters)

Reply
Team Hazard April 13, 2019 - 3:09 am

Thank you. Thrilled that you enjoyed it. When my grandma died, we didn’t have a wake, but at/after the funeral we found ourselves telling all of the good stories and laughing more than crying. There are a lot of different ways to deal with death and I think it’s good to respect all approaches.

Reply
Amy April 12, 2019 - 6:11 pm

Holy cow, what a fascinating experience. I first heard about this on the YouTube channal Ask a Mortician. She also went to Sulawesi to learn about these cultures.

Reply
Team Hazard April 13, 2019 - 3:10 am

Ask a Mortician? I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the heads up.

Reply

Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

error: Alert: Content is protected . Please contact Team Hazard Rides Again for usage options.