“Crashing” A Sacrificial Funeral in Tana Toraja

Please note that this story contains graphic images and descriptions about the slaughter of animals, a tradition that is very important to the Torajan people.

“There! Rambusolo!,” my new Indonesian friend said as he pointed to a crowd of people gathered amongst the rice paddies. We’d been riding this motorbike all day trying to find the ceremony that the Torajan people are known for and we’d finally come upon one…a funeral.

“You are very lucky,” my new friend told me. I knew I was. People come to Tana Toraja (literally, “Torajaland”), a region in the highlands of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, just to witness these funerals which last for days (paying through the nose for a guide to help them find one). And boy, was it an extravaganza!

Funeral Setup

Structures for the funeral had been specially built in the middle of the rice fields just for this funeral

As we wandered around the rice paddies to get to the service (Torajan funerals are public services so you can, in fact, just wander in), dozens of people, shrouded in black shawls, passed. Townsfolk came and went, as funerals here can last days. Men walked by carrying pieces of a newly carved pig on a stick, its severed head hanging on one side and its body on the other, a mere hint of the rather gruesome sight we would encounter.

Pig for Slaughter

Villagers carry a pig destined for slaughter

The Torajan people are deeply Christian, yet they still retain their traditional, animist death rituals. Among them is a strong belief in the afterlife. The deceased are buried with items they would need and animals are sacrificed so that their souls can also follow the person’s soul into the afterlife. In a sense, it reminds me of the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians.

Trail of Blood

A trail of fresh blood led the way to the center of the action

The Funeral

We arrived at a center island where a crowd with black shawls gathered, listening to speakers over a loudspeaker and hacking away at a couple slaughtered pigs. Ahead, across a rice paddy, lay a colorful sight. Long, roofed buildings leading to another center island. These, my friend told, were for the extended family. At the center island were several buildings, built specifically for this funeral, including a tall central building with the signature Toranjan boat-shaped roof. There, on the highest level, was the coffin. A portrait of the deceased adorned the front of the building, indicating that she had passed away on December 31, 2012. This funeral was being held on August 6, 2013.

Casket Building

This special, centrally located structure, holds the casket on the second level

As we approached, the speaking (or was it, preaching?) stopped. A trail of blood led ominously towards our destination. And up ahead lay a rather gruesome sight. Directly in front of the coffin lay a mat containing pieces of a newly slaughtered water buffalo. Its face, still mostly intact, stared back at me, teeth exposed, as if it were letting out a scream.

Slaughtered Buffalo

Yes, that’s a water buffalo in little pieces on a mat. The casket building was overlooking this.

An Invitation to Lunch

No sooner was I done taking in this gruesome sight when I heard a voice say, “You want some lunch?” It was a man sitting close by, who must have been a closer member of the family. As he handed me a paper triangle filled with rice and offered trays of pieces of pork and fish (and then scoffed when I, in his opinion, didn’t take enough), he introduced himself as Martin. Seemed he lived in Jakarta working for the agency that oversees mining and right now he was supposed to be on vacation with his wife and daughter in Spain, but he had to come home to his village for the funeral. The cone came with no utensils and you were meant to use your hands. Well, at least your right hand, something I needed a little work on, as I made a huge mess!

Lunch!

My lunch, to be eaten with your hands!

After lunch, I thanked him profusely and we moved on, finishing our loop around the funeral. Multiple photos of the deceased, from different phases of her life, adorned the surrounding buildings. This ceremony would go on for quite a while (days, in fact), but we decided it was time to leave.

The Slaughter

Slaughtered Pig

A freshly roasted (and slaughtered) pig. The man on the right had just finished using a flame thrower on it.

But as we passed to the next area of side seating, we heard endless amounts of squealing. There, half a dozen pigs or so were in the process of being slaughtered, a fascinating, albeit gruesome thing to watch. Men with large knives made one incision just above the leg and then let the pig bleed to death. Then the stomach was cut wide open and the all the organs were pulled out in one fell swoop and put on a bamboo mat. Then, men carrying flamethrowers went to work on the pig, roasting it. I didn’t stick around long enough to see the end result, but I did notice that some people were splashing up the fresh pig’s blood towards their faces, almost seeming to drink it!

Pig Slaughter

The first step was to cut a vein so the pig could bleed to death (you can see the spot on the upper right pig). Then the stomach was cut open and the organs were pulled out in one fell swoop (bottom right).

Pig Slaughter

Next flame throwers were used on the pigs. The man on the top left was drinking blood straight from the pig’s stomach.

In the 90 minutes or so I was at the funeral, I saw a dozen pigs being slaughtered, a tiny fraction of the reported 250 (!) that are slaughtered over the course of the multi-day event, in addition to dozens of buffalo, considered to be the most important animal. It was bloody…and probably the most unique event I saw on my entire trip! For why do we travel if not to experience what is important to other cultures?

If you haven’t already done so, you may want to check out my explanation on the Torajan view of death, including details about what happens between the time of death and the funeral! 

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2 Responses to “Crashing” A Sacrificial Funeral in Tana Toraja

  1. Megan April 6, 2016 at 3:02 am #

    The pig slaughters witnessed were pretty standard procedure. The “flamethrowers” were not roasting or cooking the pigs, but rather burning the hair off. 🙂

    • Aaron April 12, 2016 at 12:57 am #

      Fascinating, thanks!

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