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The Fascinating Funerals Of Tana Toraja

January 21st, 2010 by

If you are a pig or water buffalo, it’s a bad decision to visit the highlands of Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi. In this Indonesian province, despite the rapid encroachment of modernization, the locals cling to many traditional ways as exemplified in their funeral rites. In a ceremony that takes days or even months to complete, the family of the deceased organize a large party to bid their final farewells to the departed. And that includes feasting on large quantities of pork and native beef.


Torajans are obsessed with death, but unlike the somber pall of many Western funerals, these people have a more upbeat approach to it. Though now mostly Christians, their millennia-old culture believes in the power of ancestral spirits and how they affect the living. This is reflected in the death party, the single most important ceremony in the life cycle, whose purpose is to bring the spirit to the puyah, the land of souls.

The houses of the Torajans indicate the customs of their society. Carvings display the social status and the local beliefs while the number of buffalo horns hanging in front of the house showcase the number of funerals it has hosted. And the more the horns, the higher the status the family enjoys.

When Torajans die, their bodies are preserved with certain herbs and kept in a traditional house called Tongkonan, under the same roof as their kin. Their family believe that they are not dead, but merely diseased, and only when the first buffalo is sacrificed during their funerals are their souls believed to start their journey to puyah. During the years that the body remains in the house, the family collects money to afford the funeral. The ceremony begins with funeral attendees assembling in the buffalo-slaughtering field and chanting ma’badong, a mourning tune.


The highlight of the festivities is the buffalo fighting. Amidst the cheering crowd, the buffalos fight. After fighting, the animals are slaughtered and the meat are distributed among the attendees according to social position. Even the deceased are allotted a portion, called Aluk Tolodo. The buffalo heads are removed, their horns decorate the front of the house.

The dead are not put in their final resting place until the 11th day of the funeral. The coffin is carried amidst a procession, with plenty of cheering and laughter to drive away the evil spirits. Once the coffin reaches the burial site, the emotion changes into one of grief, with women shedding tears in a final farewell to the departed.

Deceased Torajans are rare!y placed in the ground; instead, they are entombed in the side of cliffs.  Social class also determines the type of resting place for the deceased: the lower class are put in caves, the middle class get hanging graves, while the nobility are placed in graves high above the rocks. The graves of the noble class are also guarded by tau-tau dolls, small effigies made in the likeness of the departed and dressed in clothing, accessories and jewelry.  The word tau-tau means “little person; during the doll’s manufacture, the woodcarver sleeps near the house of the deceased. It is then stationed in front of the grave, its clothing changed every couple of years. Once the coffin is interred and the grave sealed, the ceremony continues on the open space besides the cliff, with attendees feasting on a pig killed earlier in the day.

To get to Tana Toraja, take an airline from Bali to Massakar Airport, then ride for 7-8 eight hours to Toraja land. There is a funeral held almost every other week, so the chances of attending one is pretty good. Vegetarians should beware of the animal-heavy cuisine of Tana Toraja. A guide is recommended to experience a funeral, and while there are no fees for attendance, a gift for the host family is commonly expected.

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