Tana Toraja Funeral Rituals: A Better Way To Go?



The black suits. The coffin. The weeping family. Funerals in the Western world showcase an intensely raw and immediate relationship between humans and death – a tragic experience that serves not only as a commemoration of a life, but also a reminder to all that are present of their own mortality. It is an affair at once profoundly sad yet paradoxically dull, as the overwhelming sense of emptiness and aching loss is set against a backdrop of shuffling acquaintances, averted gazes and murmured apologies as vague as they are commiserating.

It is well known that this Western approach to death is far from the standard – many cultures practice rites startlingly different to ours. For these cultures, funerals are wild and colorful affairs whose intricate ceremonies can often seem bizarre to outsiders or even sacrilegious. Perhaps more than any other, the funerals of the Tana Toraja people of Northern Indonesia illustrate not only how superficially different the burial rites of certain cultures are, but also how humans across the world approach death with fundamentally different mentalities.

Standing in the midst of a Torajan funeral, I found myself under a deluge of sensations. From the clamor of hundreds of instruments, the mouth-watering smell of roasting stew and the colorful costumes, I could almost taste the atmosphere of festivity on the air. Perhaps the first thing that I noticed as a visitor was the sheer scale of the affair. With numbers usually reserved in the West for beloved celebrities, a funeral in Tana Toraja is typically a week long and draws entire towns of mourners – thousands of friends, relatives and hangers-on from down the road or as far afield as Australia gathering in a purpose-built wooden village to commemorate the life of a local.

But as the seven days of the funeral progress, the events create an even stronger contrast with the muted, autopilot despair of a Western funeral than the atmosphere itself. On the first day, at dawn, a long procession of mourners takes the elaborately carved sarcophagus up a creaking bamboo scaffold to deposit it in a traditional tongkonan, or stilted house. Once the casket has been placed there, for a week it will be surrounded by traditional events such as Indonesian kickboxing, animal sacrifices, musical performances and buffalo fights before it is taken to its final resting place in a hollowed-out niche in a local cliff-side.

Yet while this fantastic, almost pageant-like process might sound like a fairy tale – and thus lure in spectators with its exotic sights and sounds –, it did not take long for me to get the feeling that something was awry. On the one hand, certain complaints from a Western perspective seem obvious: it took all my resolve to watch sixty buffalo be slaughtered at once in a tiny paddock, ankle-deep in their blood with the stench of voided bowls filling the air as the flies descended. But though this truly shocking brutality might be enough to turn away the animal-lovers, the more troubling problems with the Torajan funeral are more abstract.

Tana Toraja, Salu funeral, buffalo fighting

Buffalo fighting in a Tana Toraja ceremony.

First, sitting amidst thousands of mourners, many furiously betting on the outcome of buffalo fights and others scoffing down the mountains of free food, it is hard to escape the feeling that such celebrations lack the emotional intensity characteristic of the West. But while it astonished me to meet mourners who did not even know the name of the deceased, it was my discussions with these peripheral figures that revealed the beliefs and obsessive mindset that make such festive funeral days come at crippling cost.

Moments after death, the body is wrapped in cloth and then placed in its former bedroom in order to comfort it with familiar surroundings as it prepares to enter the second life. Such a sense of home’s comfort might seem like a sweet, laudable motive. However, with no proper mummifying procedures and the traditionally long waiting period before the funeral, a sickening dynamic is created. As the deceased lies comfortably in their old room, meanwhile, for up to two years, the family members sleep, eat and go about their daily lives with the reek of decaying mother, father or brother filling their home.

Yet this is only the start of the demands that the dead place on the living. Standing in the midst of the funeral, overwhelmed with colors, sights and sounds, it was easy for me to overlook just how astronomically expensive this week long party is. First, the funeral village has to be constructed, then the bands hired, the coffin carved, the cliff niche bored and, most importantly yet most expensively by far, the buffalo must be bought and sacrificed.

To enter the afterlife as a member of the Torajan upper class, one’s family must slaughter at least 25 buffalo. At the funeral I attended, at least 70 were dispatched in order to ensure the dead a speedy passage to the beyond. For a local people constantly facing economic insecurity, the cost of killing so many animals (each of which can cost up to $600) means that their entire lives can be spent desperately trying to earn enough from the rice harvest to pay for a celebration of their dear departed. Fail, and the corpse will remain in one’s home, joined over the years by others until the potential expense has risen so high that a Torajan might have to admit defeat in the most profound and shameful of ways – denying those they loved the chance of heaven.

To me at least, it seemed that the funerals of the Toraja are altogether a more vibrant, intriguing and downright enjoyable process than their Western counterparts. But dig beneath the surface, one finds a brutal cycle of debt to the dead. While funerals here might be full of terrible pain and grief, at least the passing of the dead serves to remind us that we too will be remembered and celebrated. For the Toraja, each funeral instils not only a fear of the vast financial burden their own death will impose on those they love, but also the terror that something might go awry and they will be denied entrance to the afterlife.

Having been lucky enough to attend and understand a funeral in Tana Toraja, I came away with a cultural lesson far more profound than I had expected. I realized that, while it might be easy to disapprove of monochromatic Western despair in contrast with such exotic celebration, the Torajan mentality of mortality is perhaps even more psychologically and literally draining than our own.

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