Funerals in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Posted on August 20, 2011

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The life of the Torajans of South Sulawesi is very much focused on death. They spend their time working with buffalos on rice-terraced hills, living in colourful boat-shaped houses, and saving money for gigantic funeral ceremonies that last several days and are attended by thousands of guests. The countryside is spotted with graves in caves, small houses, and coffins hanging from cliffs alongside white-eyed wooden dolls resembling the deceased.

After death, the deceased is declared to be “ill” – sakit, and only on the day of the funeral he/she obtains the status of being “dead” – tomate. Close relatives still visit the “ill” person and even bring him food. It is a time to slowly prepare onself to accept the ill person’s death, but also to collect money for the horrendously expensive funeral ceremony. The “ill” person is preserved from rotting by injecting formaldehyde, and in former times with natural preservatives such as mango leaves.

In the past, many other rituals accompanied a funeral, which were necessary to make sure the dead person’s soul proceeded into the afterlife properly. Only few of these rituals have survived to date, which was caused by the introduction of christianity and cultural suppression by Dutch colonists – in fact, Tana Toraja was the first region of today’s Republic of Indonesia to be converted to christian faith, which is hard to believe when witnessing this type of funeral. Today, funerals have taken a superlative touch by the presence of more expensive animal sacrifices. Prestigeous albino or spotted buffalos change owners for up to US$ 30 000.

On the first day of the funeral, guests are received and fed by the family on the funeral ground, which takes months to build from bamboo with the help of neighbours and friends. Guests sit in decorated booths and are fed traditional cake and meat cooked with herbs in bamboo tubes. Most guests bring pigs or buffalos as presents, of which many are sacrificed during the following days. Buffalo fights are held before the killing day, in which money is bet. The gruesome killing of buffalos is a big attraction for local visitors – their throats are cut so that they slowly bleed to death, falling over each other and winding on the ground, often waking up again after initially falling unconscious. The meat is distributed throughout the community, and horns decorate traditional houses as status symbols.

The funeral is the first occasion for the family to mourn their loved one’s death, which is often done in a very conscious and intense way. Eventually, the coffin is carried to the grave by young men. This is traditionally done with cheering, pretending to struggle going into different directions, and splashing water over the coffin in play.

There are different types of graves – In present times, house graves are preferred by many people because they are very safe from grave robbers. In the past, hanging graves were effective against thieves – coffins were hung from a cliff, which now have partly rotted away, revealing skeletons. Cave graves are also present. The relatives of the deceased bring many offerings, such as cigarettes and water to drink. They often bring the dead things they had dreamed about in their sleep. Rich people are portraied as white-eyed Tau Tau puppets, which are carved from sandalwood and resemble the dead person. Traditionally, they show hand gestures of giving and receiving, symbolising the animist belief that dead people must be given offerings and will in turn ensure a good life to the living.

Dead fetuses and babies are buried in holes cut into a special tree and covered with fiber from a palm tree. The idea behind it is that a baby is still supposed to grow, which can be achieved in the tree.

DISCLAIMER: Some images below display skeletons and butchered animals with lots of blood. Pictures and videos of the killing are available on request only.


Reception of guests at a funeral in Tana Toraja

Reception of guests at another funeral in Tana Toraja

Buffalo dancers leading the reception of guests

Screaming pigs are brought into the funeral grounds as gifts

Rice stomping ritual

A ritual before the killing of the bulffalos

The last journey – the coffin is carried to the grave by cheering men

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Posted in: Asia