Tana Toraja Funeral Ceremonies, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Warning: This Post Contains Graphic Images


Tana Toraja, located in the steep mountains of south Sulawesi is best known for its fascinating culture surrounding their funeral ceremonies and life after death.  Although they are Christian today, their Christianity is blended with ancient traditions. For example they do not believe in hell. After death the soul goes to a secondary life where mistakes are atoned for before returning to God. Funeral ceremonies follow specific traditions and may include animal sacrifices.

I hired a guide for 3 days to visit the local sights and do some trekking in the mountains near Rantepao, the gateway to the area and where you find most accommodations and restaurants. While the region does see some tourism, tourism is not a big industry here. Most tourist come in August, during the dry season, when they bring out the dead bodies to clean and redress them.

I cover my time here in 4 posts. The first post talks about visits to cemeteries, the second visits to 2 funerals, the third walks in the mountains and the forth sleeping and dining in Rantepao and a review of my guide, Otto.

First Funeral Ceremony Visit

On the way to our hike for the day we stopped at a smaller funeral than the one we would see the following day.

For the funeral they build temporary platforms for the guests to hang out and sleep. These are long, open air structures with a roof, and a low railing dividing areas for individual families.

When we arrived they were in the process of chopping up some buffalo that had been sacrificed earlier. In the center of the open area was a bloody mess of about 10 carcasses being hacked into pieces and sorted which would be shared by the extended family. All the meat and parts of the sacrificed animals are shared and used.  

The heads of the family sit at the base of a nearby alang (a rice storage house shaped like a small version of the tongkanon, the traditional house) and observe and control the process.

On a wall above the butchering area hung banners of the deceased couple. It does not necessarily mean that they died at the same time. One person may have died and the second person died while the body of the first was still at home. Thus they could have a joint funeral ceremony.

Otto, my guide, took me on a walk of the grounds where we saw meat drying, a pork soup in a large enclosed stainless steal container, the pig pen and the kitchen – a covered area with a dirt floor and open fires. Women sat on the floor folding a thick paper into bowls. Previously they had used bamboo leaves for serving plates.

When we returned to the butchering area a couple of other tourists had shown up without a guide. One of them was an elderly man who walked with difficulty using a cane. He sat himself at the head of the rice container, a place reserved for the head of the family. Otto feeling responsible for the unknowing tourist’s gaff quickly found him a chair and moved him to a more appropriate place. Out of respect for the local culture and to prevent doing anything inappropriate it is important that tourists have guides when they visit funeral ceremonies.

From the Road

2nd Funeral Ceremony Visit

Unlike my visit to the funeral ceremony the previous day, today’s visit saw the gentler side of the ceremony. This was a large ceremony lasting 7 days with around 500 mourners paying their respects.

Each family group has a space to gather, sit, share food and sleep. In this case the temporary structures spread down the street.

The families arrive in groups and walk in procession to pay their respects. They are guided through the rante (the funeral site) by a procession of close family members. They pass by a ring of chanters and a group of young women singing and dancing. With the arrival of each new family group the process is repeated.

Because Otto knew a member of the family I was allowed to sit near the front with this family and watch the procession. They sit on mats on the floor of the structure. The long structure is diving into rooms for family groups by low bamboo railings. Out of practicality the women mostly sit separately from the men. Most were dressed in dark colors, generally black, and wore their best gold jewelry. Since I had not planned to come to a funeral I did not have black clothing with me, but this seemed not to be a problem. There were other tourists at the funeral, most with guides, some wore black, others did not.

You are supposed to bring a gift, generally cigarettes or you can put some money in an envelope (250,000 IDR) and give it to the family. I chose the latter.

We stayed long enough to eat with the family. They bring out buckets of rice and various meat and vegetables dishes in plastic containers. You help yourself placing the rice and other dishes in a paper wrapper folded into a sort of bowl. Torajans eat with their fingers. Shared water bowls to wash your hands before and after you eat are also brough to the mat.

I can’t say the food was very good, but it was the act of sharing food with the family more than the food itself that was special.

After we ate, Otto took me around the rante grounds. We saw the kitchen, rows of temporary housing, a big pot of buffalo boiling and the butchering and dividing of meat.

Treatment of Animals

If you are sensitive to animal rights and the treatment of animals a trip to Tana Toraja may not be right for you. Their methods of holding and killing animals can be barbaric by Western standards. As we were driving down the street I saw a man lift a dog from a cage and start clubbing it to death. The first blow did not kill it. Otto told me it was to be eaten.

At the first ceremony I visited, the buffalo were being hacked up with machetes in a big bloody mess. At the second funeral the pigs, obviously in distress, were bound by rope to wooden slats.

While I respect a culture’s right to practice their traditions I do think animals should be treated as humanely as possible.

October 11-16, 2023