Exploring the Death Culture of Tana Toraja

Living Among the Dead

Traditionally, a funeral happens shortly after death. But for the Torajans, a funeral is held months or even years after an individual passed away. A Torajan funeral is so costly that the family members may take years to be able to afford it. A typical funeral may cost $18,000-$500,000. Until the funds are met, the deceased is kept in the family home, and is preserved using various methods such as herbs and formalin. For the Torajans, a dead person is not considered dead until a proper burial is given. As the body remains at home, the family members continue to provide utmost care and daily attention as if the person is still living.

Who are the Torajans

Map of South Sulawesi

The Torajans are the original inhabitants of Tana Toraja (Toraja Land), a mountainous region located in the island of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Toraja Land is divided in to two regencies: Tana Toraja with its capital Makale and Toraja Utara with its capital Rantepao. Majority of the Toraja tribe lives in Rantepao, the cultural capital of Toraja.  

The Most Expensive Funeral in the World

The Torajans are known practitioners of Aluk To Dolo, an ethnic religion known for its elaborate funeral ceremony called Rambu Solo. The Torajans believe that a Rambu Solo must be properly done in order for the soul to reach Puya, the Torajan equivalent of heaven. It is also believed that improper funeral will cause misfortunes to those that are left behind.

Rambu Solo

A Rambu Solo may last for weeks, it involves different ceremonies that are classified according to age and social status.  Due to the complexity of Rambu Solo, I will only be focusing on certain parts of the funeral ceremony.

1 .Ma’Tudan Mebalun: The first phase of the funeral ritual involves the wrapping of the body. This is held in a field located in the middle of a Tongkonan, a traditional Torajan home made with bamboo and buffalo horns.

2. Ma’Roto: Phase two is when the family members decorate the coffin with jewelries, gold and silver cloth. In the video below, you’ll see the decorated coffin on top of a Lakkian.

3. Ma’Palao or Ma’Pasonglo: The wrapped body is paraded from the Tongkonan house to a Lakkian, a temporary bamboo structure where the coffin is placed for the entirety of the funeral ceremony. This phase commences the funeral ritual. It includes various activities including: Opening ceremony, family and guest introductions, worship activities, and animal sacrifices.

The Lakkian is the middle structure in between the tongkanans

4. Ma’Pasa’Tedong and Mantunu: The most prominent and most expensive part of the Rambu Solo. This ritual involves the gathering and parading of water buffalos. The number of buffalos depends on the social status of the deceased; Typically, 8-10 buffalos for the middle class and 50-150 buffalos for people of higher status. A white buffalo with black spots (Tedong Saleko) comes with a price tag of $60,000. While the most priced White Stripe Buffalo (Tedong Bonga) comes with a hefty price tag of $75,000. In the Torajan culture, buffalos are considered sacred animals and parading them is a sign of respect and appreciation. They believe that the buffalos are ushers to the after life. The buffalos are then slaughtered and the best parts are distributed among the family members, the rest are cooked and shared with the guests.

5. Meaa (ma’kaburu ‘): The last and final stage of a Rambu Solo. The deceased is paraded to its final destination, traditionally, on a cliff side grave. The higher the social status of the deceased the higher the grave.

Cultural performances, distribution of food, and sometimes cock fighting is held even after the funeral ceremony.

My husband enjoying the treats; we had coffee luak & Indonesian snacks. We were lucky enough to be invited to watch the funeral ceremony.

More interesting death rituals in Tana Toraja

Tau- Tau: An effigy or Tau- Tau is a wooden carving that resembles the likeness of the deceased. The effigy is placed in front of a gravesite as a way to honor and remember the dead.

Effigies on a cliffside grave

Ma’nene Festival: Perhaps the most unique festival in the world, the Ma’nene Festival involves digging out the corpse of a dead relative; the corpse will be cleaned and given new set of clothes. It will then be paraded back to its hometown and back to its grave. The Torajans believe that this festival can ward off evil spirits, bringing in a prosperous harvest for the coming year.

Kambira: In the Torajan culture, when a child less than 6 months of age dies, a funeral ritual called Kambira is performed. This ritual involves burying a baby inside a live jackfruit tree. A small hole is carved in a tree, just enough to fit an infant. The site will then be covered by palm tree fibers to protect the body from the outside elements. The Torajans believe that the tree will serve as the new mother of the child. Interestingly, the Torajans compare the tree’s sap to a mother’s milk. Out of all the death rituals in Toraja, the tree burials are the only one that is no longer practiced.

Baby graves in Kambira Village
The last Kambira ritual was done over 50 years ago

Tana Toraja is a place packed with amazing tradition, architecture, and outlandish death culture. Majority of the population has converted to Christianity but the Torajans strong culture and pre-christian tradition lives on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s