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Death around the world: Toraja funerals

Torajan people carry a heavily decorated coffin on a bier with a pointed roof

A decorated coffin is taken the cliffside on a traditional house-shaped bier. Photo by Sergey via Flickr.

For many cultures, when someone dies, they are no longer part of daily life. Not in Tana Toraja, where indigenous people who die remain very much a part of the community. In fact, the person who has died is kept, unburied, in their home for months or even years before the funeral takes place, and still treated like a member of the family.

Tana Toraja is a region of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and is home to the indigenous Torajan people, who have what is often described as the most complex funeral rituals in the world. Although the majority of people living in the region are Christian or Muslim, many people follow the funeral traditions of the local religion known as Aluk Todolo – meaning ‘the way of the ancestors’.

In Tana Toraja, death is a part of life, almost inseparable. In traditional Torajan villages, the houses are shaped with pointed roofs, tapering at each end. When a Torajan person dies, their coffin is kept and transported on a bier in this same shape.

On the edges of many villages are stone megaliths, which look as if they are sprouting upwards from the ground. These stones are memorials to important ancestors and often form the site where the most important Torajan ritual takes place: the funeral.

Megaliths at the edge of a Torajan village The edge of a village in Tana Toraja, with sacred stone megaliths in the foreground. Photo by Michael Gunther via Wikimedia.

Planning the perfect Torajan funeral

Torajan funerals are incredibly elaborate and notoriously expensive. Members of Torajan communities can spend much of their lives saving up for the perfect send-off when they die. The more important you are in the community, the more extravagant your funeral must be.

Partly because so much time and money is needed to make preparations for the funeral, and partly because of the religious rites of Aluk Todolo, the body of the person who has died can remain unburied for months, sometimes years.

Usually, the person who has died is embalmed and kept in the family home, in plain sight. They might be sitting in the corner of the main room, where they can remain part of daily family life. They are symbolically fed and given water at every mealtime, and sometimes even taken out of the house.

Indeed, during this time, the person is not really seen as being dead. Although it is almost impossible for us to imagine, the dead person is seen as being in a state more like being asleep or being ill. They are still present and treated like a living person.

The ceremonies begin

Torajan dancers wearing elaborate clothing, preparing to dance Ceremonies involve ritualised dancing, traditional costume and communal feasts. Photo by Sergey via Flickr.

Once preparations are finally in place, the funeral ceremonies can begin. These can last days and weeks, depending on the social status of the person who has died, and involves the whole community.

The proceedings usually begin with the ritual slaughter of water buffaloes and pigs. The slaughter follows a prescribed ceremony and the more important the person who has died, the more animals will be butchered. Meat is given out to the mourners in accordance with their importance within the community. The bereaved family will collect the horns of all the buffalo and display them outside their family home.

The funeral ceremonies are very much focused on a celebration of life, with music, dancing, feasting and community spirit. Visitors often comment on how surprisingly fun Torajan funerals are, thanks to their festive atmosphere.

Often the person is finally buried around the 11th day of the funeral. The coffin, which is usually heavily decorated, is placed in a cave or alcove high up on a cliff. These cliffside caves often act as communal tombs, where community members are all laid to rest.

Tau-tau and ancestor worship

Carved statues on a balcony in the cliffside A collection of wooden tau-tau statues guard the dead from their balcony. Photo by Michael Gunther via Wikimedia.

Another of the many Torajan rituals associated with dead is the creation of a tau-tau, a carved wooden effigy made to look like the person who has died. Traditionally, these carved statues were fairly simple, but in modern times many Torajan people want expensive life-like effigies which they can dress in their loved one’s clothing.

These tau-tau are placed on balconies near the cliffside tombs to watch over the dead. As well as acting like guardians, the tau-tau represent a vibrant tradition of ancestor worship within Torajan culture. If a Torajan person visits their village’s tomb, they will be able to see generations of ancestors looking down upon them.

Ma’Nene and walking with ancestors

In August of every year, the Torajan people take part in a ritual known as Ma’Nene. During this unique festival, the bodies of those who have died are taken down from their cliffside tomb and removed from their coffins.

The family will wash, groom and dress their ancestor in fresh clothes, as well as repairing the coffin to ensure it will last until the next Ma’Nene. Some families take photographs with their loved ones.

Then each family will walk with their loved one around the village. Usually carried by one or two people, the family will carry their loved one in a set path around the village, usually along certain straight lines. These are thought to be a spiritual path known as Hyang. When the ritual is complete, the ancestor is placed back in their coffin and safely stowed away in the cliffside tomb for another year.

Though to your average Brit, the idea of exhuming a loved one and parading them around the village would be unthinkable, to the Toraja people it is an indispensable cultural tradition. It is their way of maintaining precious links to their ancestors, and honouring their loved ones by caring for them, even long after death.

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