A Torajan Funeral – Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia

This is part III in a series about Toraja, view other parts: Part I, Part II, Part IV

A lot of time in the life of a Torajan is spent dealing with death. Their elaborate funeral rites and the high costs involved with them ensures that everyone will spent a fair share of their time helping out in preparing for the ceremonies and contributing in one way or another.

When a Torajan dies the body is initially kept in the tongkonan, or traditional family house. How long it will be there varies but seems to average around a year, in some cases, it’s a lot longer. During this period, the person is not actually considered dead, but sick. The family members will still come and talk to the deceased and offer food and drink and cigarettes. Meanwhile, this year is used to prepare the funeral ceremony after which the ‘sick’ person will be off to paradise and be deemed dead. During the ceremony, the body is kept in a little structure which is called a ‘tongkonan tang merambu’, or family house without a kitchen.

Though this period might seem long, it is necessary in most cases to start preparing for the elaborate funeral ceremony. As you know by now, a funeral requires buffalo and those cost quite a bit of money. The period that the body is kept in the house gives the family some time to make enough money to acquire them. But they aren’t the only expense: temporary guest houses will be needed in order to house the guests during the ceremony, which can last up to a week. These structures, though simple, will provide the guests with a place to sit and sleep and require several months to build. After the funeral, they are all torn down again. All the guests are also provided for with food during their stay, though fortunately most guests ‘bring their own’ in the form of pigs or buffalo to be sacrificed and then eaten during the ceremony.

As you can imagine, the funerals are a heavy burden on the Torajan economy, both for the families that hold them as well as for the guests which are expected to bring pigs and buffalo with considerable price tags. Time that could have been spent on the field or doing other labour is spent building temporary shelter for the guests and money that could have been invested in education, transport or a new computer is invested in the ceremony instead. The cost of sacrificing ten buffalo alone is easily $20.000. To Torajans however, nothing seems more important then to give their dead a safe journey to Paradise.

During the ceremony there is a brief moment in which a Christian prayer is said, to give thanks for the food, after which we never hear from the Christian priest again. The priest of the local traditional belief, aluk, takes over and starts off by stating the rules of the ceremony. Among them are that any valuables found must be returned to the master of ceremony and not be kept, or it might anger the spirits. Furthermore, if anyone gets injured, it is their fault and no one else’s. All those whom attend say aye in agreement.

The rule about injury might seem an odd one but when the first buffalo are brought out to be sacrificed, the reason for its existence becomes abundantly clear. Although the first one might not have any clue as to what is going on, the others will be led to the same place to be sacrificed and stand amid the bleeding remains of their fellow buffalo. As is to be expected, most of them protest and some do so in such a violent manner that they break lose and try to escape, running over anyone in their path. The sacrifice itself is skillfully executed, one quick cut severing the windpipe and throat of the buffalo after which it staggers, falls down and eventually bleeds out. For most Westerners it’s a rather gruesome sight and fainting visiting tourists are not uncommon.

The family members sit in front of a special structure which is divided in two rows with three areas in each. When guests arrive they are announced and will present their gifts to the family, showing the buffalo or pigs they brought, and proceed to meet the family. The two rows are divided for a reason, the man sit in the left row, the women on the right. The three spaces per row are divided by class, the noble class sits at the front, the commoners and lower class fill the others. The buffalo and pigs the guests might bring are duly written down so the family knows what they are expected to bring in return when their guests have a ceremony of their own. When seated here, the men are served cigarettes and the women beetle nuts. This is why tourists are advised to bring a cart of cigarettes to the ceremony as a gift: there is a lot of smoking going on and the cigarettes are provided by the family holding the ceremony. After a while, the group of guests is assigned to a temporary housing structure for the duration of the ceremony and the next group of guests comes to take their place.

After they have been sacrificed the buffalo are skinned and butchered in place. Many families and villages will have brought their own professional butchers for this to speed up the process which, depending on the amount of buffalo, can take quite a while. Once the buffalo are slaughtered their horns are cut off, put out to dry and eventually will be mounted on the front of the family house to indicate the prosperity of the family. The meat is eating during the ceremony and often villages can take some of the meat home. So can the butchers who’ll often sell it in the market to convert this buffalo-currency into something they can buy different things with.

During the days of ceremony people will meet, talk, sing together about the deceased’s life and when the ceremony comes to an end, the body will be taken out to the family grave. The Torajans traditionally used wooden coffins for family graves. One coffin would fit quite a few members because by the time the body would finally be put in the coffin only the bones would remain. The use of more modern embalming agents such as formalin means that the bodies will remain in tact for a much longer period and the wooden coffins became too small quite quickly. The Torajans started to make their graves large spaces which they carved in rock where the families can be joined together again. The grave carvers are paid in buffalo which they can sell at the market for regular currency.

When the deceased has been fortunate enough to have had at least 24 buffalo sacrificed at the ceremony he or she gains the right to a tau-tau, a wooden statue representing the person when he or she was still alive. The tau-tau are commonly kept behind gates these days due to theft. Foreign collectors were quite interested in the wooden effigies and thievery caused the people to lock them away safely. The tau-tau carvers too are paid in buffalo. They can spend up to several months making them.

Although the slaughtering of the buffalo seems brutal and the great expense for the ceremonies absurd, it is easy to imagine how the tradition came to be. Although the distances between the villages can be rapidly traversed these days by motorized transport, a century ago it would be one of the few occasions that people would travel from village to village in great numbers and create new bonds, meet new people and were likely to form new marriages. The buffalo and pigs that are sacrificed are also eaten, supplying fresh meat for the guests and visitors in an age before refrigeration and electricity. How long the tradition will be kept remains to be seen.

Although many emphasize the importance of the tradition its toll on the economy and prosperity of the people is large and requiring a buffalo for a ceremony might mean having to deny your child education if you have limited funds. There are many tourists that come to witness these ceremonies but their money hardly ever finds their way to the villages that perform the actual ceremonies, remaining instead with outside travel agencies and hotels.
For now however, most Torajan seem content with keeping up with their tradition and making sure your relatives reach paradise safely is still one of the top priorities in Torajan life.

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