Tana Toraja, Indonesia – The Most Distinct Funeral Rituals in the World

This tip comes from our Italian Explorer: Davide Fancellu

In this tip I want to focus on the spectacular Torajan burial rites. Prior to the arrival of Christianity, the Toraja people believed in many gods and worshipped Puang Matua, the special god of the family, clan or tribe. Christianity undermined some traditional Torajan beliefs, but the ceremonies are still a vital part of their life.  We went to a funeral during our time there, and everything was a little bit strange for us.

For the Toraja people, all their lives rotate around death. For them it is the majesty of the funeral and not the wedding, that marks a family status, and it is a great celebration of life. Without a proper funeral rite the soul of the deceased will cause misfortune to his family. As our guide explained to us, the ceremony we attended was the second one. The first one is celebrated just after death.

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The most important ritual is often held weeks, months, or even years after the death of a person; to give to the family of the deceased time to put aside enough money to cover the expenses. During this period, the deceased is not buried, but it gets embalmed and keeps staying under his family’s roof. (Tong Konan is what their unique and traditional houses are called). Until the funeral ceremonies are completed, the person is not considered to be truly dead but merely suffering an illness.

We received an invitation from the family to visit the deceased in the ceremony.  It was an honor for us and with the local guide we met the husband of the young woman dead from cancer and we gave him some cigarettes to thank him for the invitation. That day the ceremony was a festive event for every member of the society. Traditional dancing, presentation of the guests to the family and an offer of food and drinks made up the main action. The ceremony went on for several days and involved hundreds of guests. The day after was really shocking and amazing at the same time for both of us. We went back in the early morning in the same area (without the guide) and we attended one of the most important parts of this ceremony, which involves the sacrifice of buffalos.

The Toraja people believe that the souls of animals should follow their master to the next life, hence the importance of the animal sacrifice. Before being sacrificed, according to a very strict procedure, the buffalo takes part in trials of strength known as tedong silage. After that the neck of the buffalo is cut with a sharp blade and the animal bleeds to death. After the sacrifice, the meat is distributed to the funeral visitors in accordance with each visitor’s position in the community, and the spirit of the deceased is also entitled to a portion of meat. The heads of the buffaloes are returned to what is locally known as puya (a site for the soul and spirit of the dead person) and their horns placed in front of the house of the kin. The number of the horns that decorate the front of the house, indicates the status of the deceased.

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While the sacrifice of the common buffalos is acceptable, traditional Torajan believe that offerings of albino buffalo are preferable. Buffalo with these characteristic are very rare, constituting a mere 8% of the total population. Therefore, it is not surprising that these animals can cost between 15 to 30 millions rupiah, depending on the perceived beauty of the animal. After the ceremony for the dead person the deceased was buried (we left Rantepao before that) but not in the ground, because the final resting place is in a cave up on the cliffs called Tau Tau.

To read about David’s entire experience in Tana Toraja, check out his blog here.

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