One of the reasons that led us to this island of Indonesia it was being able to see a funeral first hand Tana Toraja in Rantepao, main city of this community.
Sulawesi It is a very special place, from its morphology, to the people who live on this Indonesian island. It is special because of its shape, as if it were a hand with four fingers pointing to the east.
It is also special for the communities that inhabit it, Muslims in the south, Bugis in the capital, the gypsies of the sea in the Togian islands and the Toraja in the center of the island.
We knew everything we could, during a week in the Toraja territory to this curious community. If we came to Rantepao it was precisely to see something that caught our attention, the relationship of the Toraja with death.
To put the Toraja in context with death and the funerals they celebrate, we are going to explain a little about how they see life from birth to death.
The toraja and death
For a Toraja, the most important thing during his life is to be able to save money to celebrate his funeral, yes, as you hear it (well, in this case, as you read it). From the moment they are born they are prepared to die, that is why their relationship with death is so different from ours.
They save and save to be able to buy the more water buffalo, the better, the more pigs the better, and all these animals will be slaughtered to be eaten and shared with their relatives, neighbors and other surrounding Toraja.
It is a kind of social status, the more buffalo they are able to buy the more they will have to kill at their funeral.
An example of this is that in the traditional Toraja houses you can see the importance of the family by the number of buffalo horns it accumulates at the main entrance.
Another sample is the economic value of water buffalo. There are funerals every week, and I suppose there are several, well, the price of these is high, as if continuous inflation was always hovering over their value. Perhaps the most expensive water buffalo in the world are there.
The Toraja are Christians, an imposed but well accepted religion. But their relationship with death comes from animistic traditions, to which they belonged before they were Christians.
Toraja funerals are a strange sight. A very strange feeling ran through me when I attended one of them. On the one hand, a curious appearance of joy on the part of those present, congregated in grain stores around where hundreds of pigs were killed, dozens of buffalo. The closest family takes up residence near the barn where the dead man’s coffin is located. The more distant the family, the further apart they will sit.
They are a bloody celebration, the cries of the buffalo that are being slaughtered and boned one by one. Blood is very present, so much so that everything seems to smell like blood, the ground is a lake of blood.
The pigs are tied up on bamboo sticks and stacked alive next to each other. The first to kill, first they burn and then they are dismantled. Live pigs see this spectacle, and they are placed next to the freshly slaughtered ones. Their screams are unbearable.
But for family members who may come from as far away as Java, Papua, Sumatra, Malaysia, or even Australia, it is a unique celebration. A moment of reunion. They eat together during the days of the funeral, which can be three, four or even a week.
They eat pork and buffalo meat together with rice, and they enjoy, a funeral is not sadness, it is joy.
Those who attend the funeral also show their social status (come on, the money they have). And it is common for them to bring buffalo (the wealthiest) or pigs, or rice, or whatever else is used for the celebration. It is also a way of financially helping the family of the deceased to face that expense that they have been waiting for since they were born.
Toraja burials are also quite curious. The usual thing is that the coffins of the deceased are introduced in caves. In some of them, you can see wooden dolls in the upper part of the entrance, representing those who rest eternally inside the cave.
Family and friends fill the coffins with things that the dead person liked in life. If you smoked a lot, they will bring you dozens of packs of tobacco so that in the afterlife you have something to smoke. If you liked car magazines, they will put these magazines inside your coffin, so that in your next life you can read everything about cars. His glasses, his clothes, everything, his most earthly belongings are going to rest with him.
Other burials are made in holes within “cliffs” within the forest, very curious places. My question, when I saw them was, how have they managed to make such a hole there? !!! They are Toraja, they are very proud to be Toraja, and this is a sample of it.
If the one who died was a child, it is placed in a trunk inside a tree, since it is the best way to be born again and live another life, to prepare a funeral.
Life of the dead
Well yes, although it seems contradictory, the Toraja, when they die, they are not buried immediately. It may take weeks, months, and even years for your funeral to take place. The one we went to, the dead man had been dead for almost three years.
When they die, if they consider that they still cannot celebrate a funeral according to what is expected of them, they wait. During this waiting time, the family of the deceased treats him as if he were alive. They ask him what he wants to eat, and they put food on the table. They give him tobacco and even drink. They dress and undress him, talk to him, and even, they told us, there are times when they get angry with him. To us, culturally, it may seem crazy, but for them it is normal.
Do you still want to go up Sulawesi to see and share this curious tradition with the Toraja? And I say share because they will sit you in one of the barns with the relatives and friends of the deceased. Because they will offer you rice, pork, buffalo and a drink, since they are very hospitable. They will ask you, they will want to hear from you, and all this they will do in Bahasa (Indonesian), even so, you will be able to understand you and even talk to them, do not ask me how.
Well, if the answer and curiosity is yes, I want to go, you can do it in two ways, expensive and cheap. The adventure or the tourist agency.
How to go to a Tana Toraja funeral in Rantepao on your own
Well, as I just mentioned, you can go to a funeral by paying a good sum of money through a local agency or go on your own in search of a funeral (free option).
The second option is the one we chose, and it did not take us more than two hours to find out when and where the celebration of a Toraja funeral was going to take place.
How to do it. You will need to rent a motorcycle, but it is also the best way to explore the surroundings of Rantepao to enjoy impressive landscapes, and the search for caves used as cemeteries, as well as traditional Toraja houses.
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We rented a motorcycle and went down the road with the help of a map, approaching the surrounding towns, looking for a place that seemed to be where funerals are held. We got to one, and we saw movement, luck! The next day the celebration of one began.
We spoke with those present and they told us to bring a gift for the family, a simple thing, sugar, coffee and tobacco. And that’s what we did, and voila. The next day we experienced one of the most culturally shocking moments that I have ever seen.
Renting a motorcycle is cheap, hiring a guide to go to a funeral is quite expensive. Now, it all depends on the time you have. If you have reached Rantepao, one day you can surely use it to enjoy a motorcycle ride and find where a funeral is going to be held. Every day there is, that is not going to be a problem.
The families are grateful for your presence. Of course, do not pretend to be a photojournalist, that does not mean that you do not take photos, but remember that you are the guest at a funeral, even if it is a celebration for them. Sometimes it is difficult for us to understand customs, and we also do not understand what can offend them and what not. Just respect.
Accommodation in Rantepao
In Rantepao There are not many places to stay, but a simple and cheap option with breakfast included is the Riana Homestay, a family place where the owner speaks very good English and helps with whatever is needed.
You can go directly and ask for room availability.
But if you prefer to arrive with the accommodation already booked, you can see other options in Rantepao in the following link, Accommodation in Rantepao.
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