Toraja Culture and Death Rituals
“NOTE: Images present in this post may be disturbing.”
Imagine spending years, months, or weeks with your dead relative(s) corpse under the same roof! Serving them food, cigarettes, conversing, and cleaning them up! Is it scary, emotional, or incredible?
The people of Toraja an ethnic group living in the Sulawesi mountains of Indonesia stand out of all other cultures in preserving memories and remains of their deceased relations. For the Torajans, death is the most important thing about life, and this is the reason for practicing their unique and complex funeral rituals even until today.
Do not judge or think of their culture as barbaric; moreover, a good number are Christian and Muslim. However, a larger population have local animist beliefs known as Aluk meaning ‘the way ‘or Dolo, which means ‘Way of the Ancestors’ as recognized by the Indonesian government.
Living with the Corpse
The Toraja people of Indonesia keep mummified remains of their dead relatives in their houses for a period before they eventually bury them. The deceased are traditionally invited for lunch daily, cleaned, and cared for. They treat the dead as sick people (‘toma kula’) who are merely bedridden because they believe the spirit of the deceased stays close to the body and needs care. This is to give them ample time sourcing funds to cater for burial expenses.
Torajans believe death is a process which can take months or decades before a person entirely passes over to the afterlife ‘Puya’ and passing over to Puya only occurs after the burial of a body. Until then, the deceased is kept in a room at the back of the family home facing South, which is believed to be where heaven is located.
The corpses were initially draped in sheets and blankets then preserved with smoldering fires and herbal elixirs to prevent decay. However, times have changed, and they now use formalin injections that ultimately results in mummification.
Family members visit the deceased body bringing it drinks and food up to 4 times a day. They do this out of respect and on the principle that even though the person is ‘toma kula’ their souls still live in the house hence making them a present part of the family. They also introduce their guests to the deceased.
Funeral rites – Sacrificial Buffalos
The funeral ceremony dubbed ‘Rambu Solo’ meaning the Death Perfection Ceremony takes place during the dry seasons between June and September yearly. In comparison to the Western Cultures, the people of Toraja take funeral ceremonies to higher levels. The wealthiness of the family determines the extravagance of the ceremony. Families can take even decades to amass finances and sacrificial animals required for the ceremony.
At least six water buffalo’s worth over 7,000 USD each are required for sacrifice at a Torajans funeral. Meaning the number of buffalos can go up to 100 or more for people who are high standing in society. According to their beliefs, buffalos are the vehicle to ‘Puya’- the afterlife and therefore, the more buffalos slaughtered, the quicker the deceased journey to the beyond becomes. The bulls’ throats are cut to release the spirit and horns removed to decorate the front of the family home. Meat from the animals is eaten during the death feast, while the remaining is split among the families present to take home.
Torajans never bury the dead below the ground. This is because the earth to them signifies the mother who gives life through the land, therefore burying dead bodies below the ground is like defiling the purity of the earth. Torajans bury their loved ones in hollowed out cliffside graves which are sometimes 100ft off the ground. The higher your status is in the society, the higher in the cave you are buried.
Second Burial – ‘Ma’nene’
Ma’nene refers to the ceremonial cleansing of corpses, also referred to as the second funeral. The deceased is removed from their final resting places after a couple of years, months, or weeks by their relatives for cleaning and to change their clothing as well. The corpse is taken around the village one last time during the ceremony before an official send-off. Some call it ‘The Walking Dead.’ Torajans practice Ma’nene to show their dead relatives love and appreciate them for the time they were alive.
Does a person have a say on what happens to their remains? Some choose burial, cremation, or use for research. But the final say is with the family. What you may consider bizarre culture has been practiced for over 900 years among the Toraja people of Indonesia.
Death is usually a topic most of us evade, and it is one of those subjects that send chills of emotions and sad memories of our departed friends and loved ones. But the people of Toraja believe otherwise, to them, death does not mean final goodbye. Instead, it is part of a spiritual journey. This kind of cultural practice helps them slowly adjust to the loss of their loved ones and away helps them in healing emotionally.
By: Linzer Kibebe