I first heard about the unique funeral rites of the Toraja people in 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 Toraja people buried their dead in stone graves, high up on cliffs. On top of that, every few years they remove the bodies 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 see this for ourselves.
Our tour of the Toraja region on the island of 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 graves that sound so depressing, but are touching, beautiful places. We got to attend one day of an elaborate four day funeral, 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.
Toraja Livestock Market
Note: 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 the Toraja region started with a 10 hour bus ride from Makassar to Rantepao, a city in the mountains that serves as the center of the Tana Toraja region. 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.
We had a pre-arranged the tour with a 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 tour 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 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.
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 funerals 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.
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.
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.
While most of the animals were purchased for sacrifice at funerals, some wound be used in housewarming ceremonies. We saw a pig (not bound) being taken away in a miniature bamboo house adorned with leaves. Its sacrifice was intended to 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.
Graves in Toraja
Farmland has always been precious in the mountainous land 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. 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 are often placed in groups on the face, or near the entrance to family graves. The dolls represent each of the family members. The more it actually resembles the dead person, the more it costs. Only the richest of families have a wholly representative collection of dolls at their grave sites.
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 set of 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. Unfortunately, we weren’t here during this time, but we do have pictures of 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 they continued to bring 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.
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.
Baby 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.
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.
Funerals in Toraja
Oh, where to start with Toraja 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 they’re in an above room, lying in an open coffin. Sometimes they have a ‘home’ of their own. Family members still visit with them 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 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 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 to be placed in the grave, with all appropriate ceremonies.
Funeral Day 2 and Surprise Sacrifices
The events of the funeral 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. 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 while attending families filed in and filled seats on a covered veranda while the animals are brought forth and presented.
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.
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 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.
Mummies in Toraja
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 parents lay waiting in open coffins and she was willing to let us visit.
My mix of reverence and fascination made me hesitant to take pictures. 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 have a different view of death as people 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.
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 visiting the Toraja region on Sulawesi. 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 trip.
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.
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.