The funeral rites of Tana Toraja, a dying culture

WARNING
Due to the nature of the funeral rites of the Torajan people (such as animal sacrifice) this article may disturb some readers.

Contains graphic descriptions and photographs.

After settling in, I met a local guide named Johannes. We had a chat and Johannes offered to take me on an all day tour and after a little negotiating, for a very decent price. There is a minimum amount to pay a guide (around 375,000RP), so there was no point to haggle any lower.

Some places can be visited without a guide, whilst some it is more advisable, not to mention the insight that you can gain. Johannes spoke very good English and it made more sense for me as I was not confident enough to drive around by myself.

We arranged for him to pick me up the following day and I would ride on the back of his scooter.

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In the morning, he eagerly announced he was taking me to a bull slaughter and my heart sank.

I tried to explain as diplomatically as possible that I was a vegetarian, and that I would really prefer not going to a bull slaughter.

He thought for a while and said “Ok, no problem, we will carry on. I think there is a funeral to go to”.

Funerals are a big event in Tana Toraja, more so than weddings. A family will save for years and years in order to be able to afford the grand event that is a Torajan funeral.

Sometimes hundreds of people will be invited, they provide food and drinks for the guests, they give out cigarettes and coffee, and there is traditional music and dance. The celebrations can go on for days.

Why?

The Torajan people have a unique perspective on death, tied to their animist routes, also known as “Aluk to Dolo” (the way of the ancestors).

They believe that once a person dies, they are not truly dead yet. They refer to them as “still sick”. The deceased person’s spirit cannot move on until the funeral is performed.

The bodies are embalmed and often the person is kept in the house of the family until the funeral where they are still given food and water and held in conversation. When visiting the house, you must pay your respects to the deceased.

The funeral I was taken to was that of a woman who had already been deceased for four years. When we arrived the wooden coffin had been prepared and was on a bamboo platform where people were already sitting.

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Various family members came to speak to me and offer me coffee, and asked me to sit with them near the coffin. The original plan had been to watch from the sidelines as we had not had time to purchase a gift as per custom, however, this was a very gracious offer and would have been rather offensive to refuse.

Many times I was asked about my marital status and whether I would be interested in marrying somebody’s son or grandson.

People came to take photos of me, offer me cigarettes and cake and some strange wine which I declined under the pretence that I had been a little sick lately, as I did not fancy doing the rest of my tour drunk.

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We ate the food with our hands; I steered clear of the meat and opted for rice, tempeh, boiled egg and vegetables. It was quite enjoyable and though not many people spoke English, everybody smiled at me and the overall atmosphere was very friendly.

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Then I heard this blood-curdling scream.

More people had begun to arrive and were carrying pigs tied up on bamboo sticks, which my guide said were gifts.

The pigs screamed and screamed, once placed on the floor they squirmed and breathed heavily, some pissed all over themselves and my stomach churned.

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The coffin was taken down from the platform and the family performed a traditional dance with red ribbons before the men hauled the coffin up into a Tongkonan – the traditional ancestral houses.

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There was a sudden excitement and my guide explained fervently that they were bringing in the bull.

They lead the bull by the nose into space in the centre of the platforms for all to see and produced a knife. They proceeded to slit the bull’s throat and the poor thing thrashed around whilst blood sprayed from it’s artery. It took a long time for it to collapse to the floor and die.

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My guide explained that they should have used a longer knife as usually, it should be quick and painless though this did little to console how I was feeling.

He said that the spirit of their ancestors could not pass on until a bull had been sacrificed. Apparently, at the funerals of more wealthy families, up to 40 bulls could be slaughtered. The cost of the bulls compared to what an average family earns is also very high, proving the significance it holds to them.

Then they began to slaughter the pigs and dismember them. One lady tried to offer me a severed pig leg, dangling it in front of my face and placing it down beside me before Johannes took it away and gave it to a friend.

I felt quite uneasy as my guide took me around the perimeter of the carnage to see the grandchildren dressed in their traditional attire before we said our goodbyes and continued our journey.

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Whilst I was keen to gain an insight into their culture and practices, it was still difficult for me to witness something that goes against my personal beliefs.

It was so archaic…

As if I had stepped back into civilisation long ago, back to the ancient cultures I used to read about as a child.

I also recognised that this was a dying culture, a ritual which was unlikely to stand the test of modern times for much longer.

Whilst I was not in agreement with the animal cruelty, was it much different to what the big corporations were doing back home behind closed doors? At least these people used all parts of the animal and didn’t create the amount of waste that comes with meat consumption in the western world.

I left with very mixed feelings regarding the ritual, but it was certainly it was certainly a unique and memorable experience.

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Freelance writer who loves reading, cooking & travelling. Rarely spotted without red lipstick. Penchant for whiskey on the rocks.

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