The funeral traditions of Toraja, Sulawesi

Mark Levitin | Live the World

May 29, 2024

Hidden in the evergreen interior of Sulawesi lays the land of Toraja, where death itself has limited rights, and funerary traditions preside over daily needs. No, Torajans aren't immortal, not biologically at least; but their attitude to this bitter and pointless end of every human story is non-binary. Here, dear deceased stay dormant in manmade caves and shabby crypts, but may occasionally possess a wooden statue and go for a walk. And once in a few years they come back to their living relatives, right as they are, in their desiccated embalmed bodies, for a family reunion (and a cigarette). Ah, the nature is gorgeous, too. Tourist groups, fortunately, have yet to discover this destination. Independent travellers visit often enough, but only the savviest can conduct a preliminary research and time their trip to coincide with one of the Torajan post-mortal ceremonies. And it's the ceremonies, and the very idea of erasing the border between life and death, that make Toraja truly unique.

Rambu Solo

© Mark Levitin

Rambu Solo is basically a funeral. But don't be disappointed - this is Toraja, and even when the threshold between this life and the presumable next one is crossed in the common direction, here it can't be done without a great deal of pomp and ceremony. The most notorious part of Rambu Solo is the hecatomb - tens, sometimes hundreds of buffaloes are slaughtered at once in the funeral grounds. No Torajan has been able to explain to me, what for - the people here have long been baptized, and why would their grandpas need an incorporeal herd of sacrificed cattle in Christian heaven? 

All they say is: "It's our tradition". Buffaloes don't come cheap, so sometimes a funeral like this completely bankrupts a family - despite the entire community chipping in and helping. And there's more to it - the preceding days, when a whole temporary town is erected at the grounds, made of bamboo and brightly coloured fabric, and the mourning, with a surprisingly minuscule element of grief, more like saying farewell to a family member going overseas for work. Rambu Solo ceremonies, obviously, don't follow any specific calendar, depending of the actual people dying instead, but the largest events are usually advertised on the website and Instagram feed of Toraja Tourism Bureau. Those are the easiest to follow. 


© Mark Levitin

This is quite possibly the weirdest festival one can observe in Asia, if not in the entire world. Occurring in different Torajan communities yearly, biannually, or once in 5 years, depending on the village, it's a family reunion where only some of the participants are still breathing. Traditionally, Torajans mummify their dead and entomb them in rocky crypts - and then, on the day of Ma'nene, they pull them out, unwrap the shrouds, dress them in fresh clothes, give them fancy new shades to wear and cigarettes to smoke (unlit, of course - mummies are probably more flammable than gunpowder), hug them, talk to them, then wrap them up again and put them back in the tombs. The line between life and death - right here in our world, not in some mysterious afterlife - is neglected entirely. 

"Is it a dead thing, an inanimate object?" "Yes, so I'm cleaning it with an ordinary broom."

 "But is it your uncle?" "Yes, so I'm taking him home for a cup of coffee and some gossiping."

On top of all this, local legends claim the mummies sometimes come to Ma'nene by themselves, limping and losing bits of dry flesh - of course, it always happens "in another village" or "last year", no chance of seeing it with your own eyes. 

The best place to watch Ma'nene is probably Loko Lemo, a village also famous for particularly elaborate tau-tau - wooden effigies adorning the rock tombs. Pallawa and the hamlets in its vicinity are your second best bet. Ma'nene is usually celebrated around September - do some googling for the actual dates, they float quite a bit. 


© Mark Levitin

While in recent years, many Torajans have switched to building wooden tombs for their dead, traditionally the mummies would be buried in natural or manmade caves carved in sheer cliffs. In the old, popular burial sites, hundreds of bundled corpses, often with only a decaying shroud instead of a coffin, are stacked in the back of the cave, and the front is guarded but life-sized wooden statues, tau-tau. Except they're not guardians, nor memorial images of the dear deceased - they're temporary substitutes for a body. 

What if the dead want to take a stroll? Let them better possess a wooden likeness of their gone living selves than creep around in their current cadaverous state. Aside from Loko Lemo, Londa and Pala Toke display exceptionally good collections of tau-tau. Try to visit a workshop producing the statues - they're carved routinely, with no ritual whatsoever, but very skillfully and artistically. The old arts are well preserved in Toraja.

Baby burial trees

© Mark Levitin

Apparently, whatever bizarre relationship with death Torajans have, infants are not supposed to be part of it - they have too much normal, breathing, metabolizing life waiting for them. But babies die - especially in remote mountain villages with limited healthcare and suspicious hygiene, which applies to 90% of Toraja. And so, traditionally, baby corpses would be inserted into holes made in a growing tree - to merge with it and continue living in the domain of plants, as part of the forest. This practice has been discontinued, but a few burial trees are still alive, and can be visited. The most popular such site is Kembira. Web sources brand it "a tourist trap", but in my opinion, if you know the story behind it, it's impressive enough. There a good tau-tau carving workshop roughly halfway between Kembira and Rantepao, worth a stopover.

© Mark Levitin

Any semblance of modern amenities is only found in Rantepao, the central town of Toraja. In villages, accommodation is limited to basic homestays, mostly in simple farmers' homes, but in the tourist hotspots like Londa a few tongkonan - traditional buffalo horn shaped houses - have been converted to guesthouses (very atmospheric, but not very comfortable). Public transport is scarce, but due to the nature of Torajans, hitchhiking is instantaneous. Driving a motorbike on the windy tracks of Torajan hills, on the other hand, is hard and risky, unless you're as perfectly fused with your metal steed as the locals (who seem to be some sort of moto-centaurs - half-men, half-bikes - and drive better than they walk). If you're a pet lover, make sure you know what meat is on your plate when eating at Torajan food stalls - dog is a delicacy here. To reach Toraja, take a long (10-12 hours) bus ride from Makassar, or one of the rare flights to the newly built airport near Rantepao. Continuing north, to the sights of Central Sulawesi, will be even more difficult - think multiple bus changes on bad roads connecting villages. For the dates of funeral ceremonies, use your best web-surfing skills - with enough effort, it's always possible to dig something out.

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