Funeral procession Tana Toraja Indonesia. Used in the article Death and Dying in Torajan Culture.

A Community of Death Doulas. Death and Dying in Torajan Culture.

Torajans homes in South Sulawesi Indonesia. used in the article How death and dying is Handled Differently.
Tongkonan’s traditional Torajan homes with their saddle-shaped roofs. Commonly called Boat houses by westerners. Photo Jorge Franganillo

Warning: This article discusses death and includes images of deceased people and includes links to photos that may be distressing to some people.

Death and Dying in Torajan culture has not changed from its centuries-old traditions, even though more than 85% (out of a population of around 450,000), are Christian, the rest include Muslim, Hindi, and Buddhists.

For Torajans, death is not the end. It’s an extension of life.

Many follow Aluk To Dolo ( the way of the ancestors), in combination with their Christian or other religions.

Like some Central and South American Indians, they have integrated aspects of their rituals with Christianity.

For instance, Day of the Dead is one that is practiced in conjunction with Catholicism and other religions in South America. On this day (23rd November from memory), the locals go to the cemetery to celebrate the life of the departed, and will sit on his grave and have a picnic, leaving behind food for the departed who will eat it during the night after the relatives have gone home.

When they come back the next morning, if the food is gone, then the departed enjoyed the cooking.

If there is still food at the gravesite it means the departed didn’t like the dish, so they will try to give a better meal the following year.

It is unusual that any food is found the next morning, as the homeless secrete themselves around the cemeteries during the day to enjoy a feast once the relatives have gone.

So, who are Torajans, and where on earth do Torajans live?

The official name is Tana Toraja, and it is in the highland area of South Sulawesi in Indonesia.

After Bali, it is the place most visited by tourists in Indonesia but no one comes here for surfing and nightclubs.

They come here to witness one of the most macabre funeral rituals in the world.

The Traditional Rituals for Death and Dying in Torajan culture

The day-to-day, rituals of your average Torajan community are similar to any community almost anywhere in the world.

In this picturesque setting with unhindered mountain views and mostly clear skies, children go to school and adults go to work.

Basically, their lives vary little from those in the Western world. However, there is one aspect that sets the Torajan culture apart from others, and that is the way they handle death and dying.

Torajans are totally fine living with the dead.

In western culture No one really talks about death. because it is sad. Western culture is slowly (very slowly), coming to grips with death.

Death doulas have been around for a few decades now in western society, and some groups are pushing for greater recognition of death doulas.

For the Torajans becoming acquainted with death begins in childhood. For them, a dead person is treated as a sick person (Toma Kula), until it is time for the funeral, which can sometimes be years away.

Unlike deaths in western society, where the deceased is interred about a week after death, Tana Toraja funerals can only take place between June and October, the driest months of the year.

The reason it can take years for a funeral to take place is the cost.

Click here for a free e-book on Surviving final Goodbyes.

Origins of the Tana Toraja Funeral Ritual

It is thought these death rites originate from about the 9th century perhaps even earlier.

According to legend the elaborate death and funeral rites of Torajans originated when a hunter named Pong Rumasek entered the Bala mountain jungle and found a dead body in poor condition and without clothes.

Pong treated him well, put clothes on him, and buried him in his rightful place.

From then on Pong harvested better, and when he went hunting he always returned with an animal.

The interesting thing is Pong always met the spirit of the corpse. That is why Pong always told his children to care for and value the corpse, even if it was left without form.

He continues to tell this ritual to every generation.

Traditional Tana Toraja care of the deceased before the Funeral Ceremony.

After a person dies, they are not considered dead.

They are considered to be Toma Kula (sick), however, the immediate family has a mourning period where the body is treated with a mix of formaldehyde and water or injected with formaldehyde, then using a mix of potpourri fragrances and burning sandalwood to mask the odour.

It takes about a week for the odour to subside, but still a potpourri mix of fragrances is used to keep the home fresh.

In the past, the body was treated with a mix of sour vinegar and tea leaves.

The body is kept in the southernmost room of the family Tongkonan, sometimes in a coffin, with the head facing west, because they are considered to be in a state of “transition”.

While they are still in the home, the Torajans believe the soul is still present, and they are bought food, water, and even cigarettes to keep them comfortable.

A well-preserved body is regarded as good fortune and the family will do their best to keep the deceased well-preserved.

Until the expensive funeral ceremony, known as Rambu Solo, is held, families treat their loved ones as if they are still alive. This only happens if the person lived an honorable life.

The cost of the funeral is extreme even by western standards, and the time needed to get the money together can take years.

Officially, The longest nobles are permitted to store the deceased in the home is 36 nights. If they fail to have the funds by then, the body is moved to a cave in the hillside and left in a marked coffin.

Outside the nobility, it could be less than that or not kept at all because the ceremony was too short, or being kept in the home for years.

The idea behind the 36 nights is that the sooner the body has a funeral ceremony, the more opportunities there will be for other blessings.

Costs of Tana Torajans Funerals

Depending on where you fit in their society the costs can be anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 in USD.

This, in a country where the average daily wage is about $6 US!

Having a ceremony is essential. Because it is their belief that it is only after this ceremony, which can last from 3 to 11 days, the soul begins its journey to Puya, the land of the spirits.

The biggest cost for the family is the cost of the sacrificial water buffalo(s). The families standing in society will determine how many buffalo they can afford for sacrifice.

The more buffalo that are sacrificed then the quicker the deceased’s soul will make the journey to Puya and the afterlife.

The values of buffalo vary and are determined by the color of its eyes, the markings on its skin, and the size of its horns.

An Albino water buffalo being prepared for a Torajan funeral. Used in the article Death and Dying in Torajan Culture.
Albino water buffalo Photo: Travel Badger

Albino buffalo with light-colored eyes are the most valuable.

At livestock markets, a buffalo in good condition will sell for US$10,000 up to $40,000+.

The average middle-caste family would likely have eight to twelve buffalo for their ceremony

Relatives are also expected to provide a beast as well.

For the lower castes pigs are also used to help speed the deceased’s journey to Puya although they should have at least one buffalo.

There will also be cock fights, fighting to the death. There are likely to be a couple of dozen roosters who will end up on the menu. That includes the winners.

To meet these costs Torajans work hard from an early age to accumulate money, mines in the area are one source that provides well-paid jobs.

Relatives working overseas will also be asked to contribute, actually, they will be expected to attend.

Click here for a free e-book on Surviving final Goodbyes.

Unlike western societies where the wedding is the most celebrated ceremony. Torajans don’t work towards their own benefit and the trappings of a western lifestyle, they save for the purchase of sacrificial buffalos.

Young men will delay a wedding if Grandma is in failing health, just so they are not burdened with more expenses or debt in the event she dies before the anticipated wedding.

Losing the family home is a real possibility and does happen if the payments are not made.

Some young Torajans feel trapped by these traditions. Others have chosen to live and work in other countries (Australia for example), where they can enjoy a modern lifestyle, yet are not too far away from their home.

Pre-covid a flight from say, Melbourne to Indonesia could be had for less than AU$1000.00 return, less from other cities.

Torajan Funeral Ceremony (Rambu Solo, The Great Goodbye)

Women in tradititionl costume at a burial ceremony in Tana Toraja with a Tau Tau (wood statue) of the deceased. Used in the article Death and Dying in Torajan Culture
Women in traditional dress at a burial ceremony in Tana Toraja with a Tau Tau of the deceased Photo: Travel badger

In the past they buried their deceased with buffalo and pigs (animism), so the deceased would have something to offer the spirits on their way to the afterlife.

The ceremony begins in a respectful way with everyone dressed for the occasion. But after the buffalos are paraded, then led to the sacrificial site things become a little more chaotic, particularly at the lower caste ceremonies, not so much at a .

Particularly if a buffalo doesn’t want to be sacrificed

The killing of the buffalo, pigs, and roosters is a noisy and gruesome affair.

Adding to the noise are vendors are selling drinks, snacks, and cigarettes.

This is becoming more common as more tourists visit these ceremonies. As far as the Torajans are concerned the more “guests” in attendance the better.

Only once the first buffalo’s throat has been slashed and it has bled to death is it acknowledged that the deceased person is “officially” dead and their soul is on its way to Puya and the afterlife. The rest of the buffalo just speed the process up.

All the sacrificed animals are killed and their heads removed and lined up side by side so the deceased can use them.

It is important that the blood of all animals touches the earth. Young boys are encouraged to collect blood squirting from the throats of buffalos in bamboo tubes as it is considered sacred.

The beasts are then butchered, and the ceremony continues with dancing and feasting for days before the coffin containing the body is taken to its final resting place.

For some idea of the size of the ceremony, say 10 buffalo are sacrificed, their dressed weight might be around 450 kg each. So there is 4,500 kg of meat to be consumed in around a week.

If the family is from the nobility, there will be more buffalo sacrificed and they are basically feeding 7 or 8,000 people for more than a week.

Eventually, the heads of the animals will be returned to the Puya (place of the soul or spirit of the deceased), and the horns removed and placed on the home. The more sets of horns there are on a house, the higher the status of that family.

Buffalo horns and jaws on the side of a Torajan's home in Tana Toraja. This signifies his status in that society. Used in the article Death and Dying in Torajan Culture.
A lot of dollars have been spent on buffalos at this Torajan’s home in South Sulawesi Indonesia. Photo: Travel Badger

The Final Resting Place for Torajans

In reality, there is no such thing as “Rest in Peace” in Trojan society.

The “burial” doesn’t take place until all the “festivities” are completed. Again it is dependent on the status of the family as to where their deceased relative will be “buried” (positioned might be a better term).

There are 4 options (generally).

  1. They find a cave to use as a burial chamber
  2. They carve a grave into large stones.
  3. They may use sky burials by hanging the coffins on the side of a cliff
  4. Store the bodies in a Patane. A Patane is a family grave site that is a smaller version a traditional house

The higher the burial cave the higher the status the family has. Some burial caves are 100ft above ground level.

Tau Tau sculptors on the balcony of a cave in Tana Toraja Indonesia. Used in the article Death and dying in Torajan culture
Tau Tau’s on the balconies of caves. Credit: Indonesian tourism.

Although less of a practice now due to thieves stealing them and selling them to tourists, a Tau Tau (a “portrait” of the deceased), is carved from wood or bamboo and placed on a balcony overlooking the valley below.

A Taau Tau sculptor in Tana Toraja Indonesia showing a part finished sculpting portrait of the deceased person. Used in the article death and dying in Torajan culture
A Tau Tau sculptor at work in Tana Toraja. Phot: Rachmat Ariadi

There are two kinds of such statues: tau-tau nangka, which is made from the durable, gold-colored wood of the bread tree or jack fruit (nangka); and tau-tau lampa, made from bamboo and cloth.

During the process, when the statue is ready, the Mebalun or the shaman kneels in front of it and turns it around to wake it up. Then he offers some pig meat and rice and a chute of rice wine. The family members give some sirih leave and tobacco and ask for its blessing and longevity. Later the women hug the tau-tau, press their face against the red face and express long complaints. After that, the statue is brought to the ritual field together with the body. After the funeral, the tau-tau is undressed. All that is left on the field is the green bamboo: the body has left to its ‘house without smoke’, the spirit has left for the south, to Puya and the relatives have gone home.

Indonesian Tourism.

In the higher caste areas, often a permanent wooden statue is carved besides the tau-tau lampa. These are the statues that are commonplace in the cave areas.

They are also seen as meeting places for the spirit; their role is to guard the excavated grave tombs and to bless their descendants.

A burial tree used for babies who haven't teethed in Tana Toraja Indonesia. Used in the article Deat and Dying in Torajan Culture.
A burial tree is used for babies who have not teethed. Tana Toraja Indonesia. Photo:Jakartaexpats

Children’s Funerals in Tana Toraja.

This ritual is equally bizarre. If a child dies before they have teethed, they are buried in a tree!

A tree is selected or it may be a tree used previously, and a hollow is cut into the trunk of the tree. The baby is then wrapped in cloth and inserted into the hollow, then the hollow is closed up with strips of wood fastened to the tree trunk.

All other children follow a similar ceremony to the adults.

Resting in Peace is not easy for the Dead

Grandpa dressed ready for a Ma'Nene ritual in Tana Toraja Indonesia. Used in the article Death and Dying in Torajan Culture.
All dressed up for a day in the sun. Credit: Kemindikbud

In Tana Toraja society, it is common for the deceased people to be attended to by their families after the funeral and burial.

Pangala Village and Baruppu Village carry out a ritual called Ma’Nene every year.

Other villages may do it every three years.

It is not necessarily village specific. It can be done just by the family if they have relatives visiting.

In this ritual the preserved corpses are exhumed, groomed and dressed in new clothes, before being paraded through the village.

After the bodies are removed from their coffins they are given a new set of clothes, hair (if any), combed. Men will probably have a cigarette placed in between their teeth and lit by a grandson, other items they may have used while they were alive could be added as well, sunglasses, hats etc.

While the ritual itself may seem bizarre, the reason for it, is that Torajan society keeps an unbroken relationship between families even though they are separated by death.

It is an opportunity for newer members of the family to meet their ancestors.

Conclusion.

There is a darker side to these rituals.

Often the money to pay for them is borrowed, if they default on the loan then they will lose their home.

While the rituals in Tana Toraja are unique, a Patane would not be unusual to Catholics who build a mausoleum for the internment of family members.

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, mausoleums are bought and sold like real estate.

Back in the day, it was not unusual in many places throughout the world to have photographs taken with a deceased relative.

But that was when photography was something to be experimented with. Post Mortems was one of the most photographed rituals back in the day.

Down through time, we have become more squeamish about death. We get others to look after our elderly (nursing homes, retirement homes etc.

The Torajans would be extremely disappointed at such a proposal.

Even though many Torajans have all the modern devices, attend modern schools and universities, they still hang on to the belief of eternal life.

Credits and Further photos and information:


Thanks for reading. As always, feel free to leave any comments below.

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Grief is an intricate emotion, often likened to a journey through a maze with its unique twists, turns, and challenges. Though everyone’s experience with grief is personal, there are shared elements that many encounter. 

By understanding these aspects and equipping oneself with coping mechanisms and supportive environments, it’s possible to find meaning, healing, and even growth in the face of loss.

2 thoughts on “A Community of Death Doulas. Death and Dying in Torajan Culture.”

  1. So true Ryan,
    I remember going into the underground corridors of a church in Lima (Peru), where they had the bodies of about 5,000 kids and adults stacked up in open coffins, who had died from some plague 3 or 400 years ago, and listening to the fearful voices of the women in the group.
    The one I remember most was the loud, distinctive middle eastern wailing of an Egyptian woman.
    She exited back to the entrance, and was visibly upset and shaken by the ordeal.
    Thank you for the response, it is greatly appreciated.

  2. Fascinating post Michael. Westerners are often so scared of even mentioning the word death, and often to terrified to discuss the concept.
    This is literally insane because we all lay the body aside; we may as well discuss it, lighten up and learn from more spiritually advanced cultures how to meet and greet the usefulness of the body coming to an end.

    Ryan

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