The Peculiar Burial Rites of Tana Toraja
- 10 months ago
The picturesque mountainous region of South Sulawesi, in Indonesia, is home to an ethnic group called the Toraja.
A large number of its members live in the regency of Tana Toraja or "the Land of Toraja" at the center of the island of Sulawesi, 300 km north of Makassar, the provincial capital of South Sulawesi. These simple people who practise animism – the view that all non-human entities such as animals, plants, and even inanimate objects or phenomena possess a spiritual essence, have developed some of the most elaborate funeral rites in the world. These include tree burials reserved for infants who died before teething, and parading of mummies who died decades ago.
Toraja funeral rites are important social events and occasions for entire families to gather, and for villagers to participate in communal events, renewing relationships and reconfirming beliefs and traditions in the way of the ancestors. These events last for several days.
When a Torajan dies, family members of the deceased are required to hold a series of funeral ceremonies, known as Rambu Soloq, over many days. But the ceremonies don’t take place immediately after death, because a typical Toraja family often lacks the funds needed to cover funeral expenses. So they wait - weeks, months, or sometimes years, slowly raising funds until enough has been saved. During this time, the deceased is not buried but is embalmed and stored in a traditional house under the same roof with his or her family. Until the funeral ceremonies are completed, the person is not considered to be truly dead but merely suffering an illness.
Once enough funds have been collected, the ceremonies can began. First, there is slaughtering of buffaloes and pigs accompanied by dancing and music as young boys catch the spurting blood in long bamboo tubes. The more powerful the person who died, the more buffalo are slaughtered at the death feast. It’s not uncommon to sacrifice tens of buffaloes and hundreds of pigs. After the sacrifice, the meat is distributed to the funeral guests.
Then comes the actual burial, but Toraja tribe members are rarely buried in the ground. They are either placed in caves dug out in the rocky side of a mountain, or in wooden coffins that are hung on a cliff. The grave is usually expensive and takes a few months to complete. A wood-carved effigy, called Tau tau, representing the deceased is usually placed in the cave looking out over the land. The coffins are beautifully decorated, but over time the wood begins to rot and the bleached bones of the deceased often drop to the bottom of the suspended burial ground.
Babies are not buried in caves or hung from cliffs but buried inside the hollow of living trees. If a child dies before he has started teething, the baby is wrapped in cloth and placed inside a hollowed out space within the trunk of a growing tree, and covered over with a palm fibre door. The hole is then sealed and as the tree begins to heal, the child is believed to be absorbed. Dozens of babies may be interred within a single tree.
The burials are completed, the guests have feasted and returned to their homes, but the rituals are not over. Every few years, in August, a ritual called Ma’Nene takes place in which the bodies of the deceased are exhumed to be washed, groomed and dressed in new clothes. The mummies are then walked around the village like zombies.
Tana Toraja’s peculiar rituals surrounding the dead today draws thousands of tourists and anthropologists to the island each year. Indeed, since 1984, Tana Toraja has been named as the second tourist destination after Bali by the Ministry of Tourism, Indonesia, giving the Toraja a celebrity status within Indonesia and enhancing the pride of the Toraja ethnic group.