Tana Toraja: death and life in lovely December

Tana Toraja: death and life in lovely December

Tana Toraja is one of the most culturally fascinating places I’ve ever visited. It is a culture that has a totally different perspective on death. Funerals are a huge part of life here. The dead are seen off to the afterlife in hugely elaborate funerals. The entire village will participate and a number of pigs, chickens and buffalo will be slaughtered – in accordance with the deceased person’s status – the higher the status, the more buffalos that are slaughtered.

Torajan funeral: close family and friends lead the coffin down the road in a final parade.

Torajan funeral: close family and friends lead the coffin down the road in a final parade.

Torajan funeral: men carry the coffin.

Men carry the coffin.

Sacrificial buffalo part of the funeral precession

Sacrificial buffalo part of the funeral precession

Torajan funeral: the coffin is taken to its ceremonial position at the centre of the funeral ceremony.

The coffin is taken to its ceremonial position at the centre of the funeral ceremony.

More astonishing than the Torajan funeral ceremony are the weeks, months or years in-between the person dying and the funeral taking place. In Torajan culture a person is not actually considered dead until a certain part of the funeral ceremony takes place. Until then, dead relatives are seen as merely ‘sick’. They will be kept in a traditional house called a Tongkonan – their bodies treated with formaldehyde – and then continue to be cared for as a normal family member. Meanwhile the family will save up the money necessary for the funeral (often tens of thousands of dollars). I was told that some families have kept (and ceremonially cared for) the body of a dead relative in their house for up to forty years.
I couldn’t imagine living with the corpse of a dead family member for years at a time. From my cultural perspective it seems incredibly creepy and macabre – but to Torajans it is completely natural.

Traditional tongkonan near Sangalla village.  These houses are still in use today.

Traditional tongkonan near Sangalla village. These houses are still in use today.

Some of the major tourist sites in Toraja are family graves. Every family in Toraja has a grave and this is a place where the bodies will be taken after the funeral ceremony. You can see family graves in Ke’te Kesu’ and Londa (not far from Rantepao). Here coffins are kept in caves – the remaining skulls and other bones are piled together and relatives leave offerings (such as money or cigarettes) for the deceased. Walking around the caves can be quite bizarre as you have to be careful not to step on the human skulls scattered about the place.

Skulls at LondaBabies who died before getting their first tooth are not buried in the same graves. Instead they are placed inside of trees. It is believed that the soul of the baby will grow up with the tree and be taken to the afterlife. These baby graves can be seen in Kambira.

Baby graves in Kambira

Baby graves in Kambira

In addition to traditional beliefs, the people of Toraja are mostly devout Christians. As I came in on the bus from Makassar it was interesting to see the streets lined with Christmas lights as soon as we crossed into the Tana Toraja regency. The shops and houses were all decked out in Christmas decorations and Christmas songs were being sung in the cute little white churches around town.
The bus from Makassar was packed with locals all coming home for Christmas. The government has called this time of year ‘lovely December’ and is aiming to make it an annual celebration for returning locals and tourists alike. As yet there isn’t much happening, but hopefully over the next few years it will start to take off. No matter what time of year you visit Toraja the cultural sights will make it an amazing experience.

Christmas lights in Rantepao, Toraja.

Christmas lights in Rantepao, Toraja.

I found it most convenient to be based in Rantepao. From there I took trips out using various types of public transport such as, pete-pete (mini van), Kijang (4WD) and ojek (motorcycle taxi). Many of the most interesting sites are accessible by public transport (although some are easier to get to than others). If you want ultimate convenience, go with a guide. They can also help you to find a funeral ceremony and can be reasonably priced if you go with a small group. As of writing this the official rate per day is 350,000rp for the car hire and 300,000rp for the guide (entrance fees and additional costs are on top of this). Renting a motorbike is also an option and can be a great way to take in the beautiful villages around Toraja.
Without a doubt, Tana Toraja is a fascinating place. It is a cultural experience like no other.

buffalo