Asia 2013 Indonesia

Tana Toraja: A Culture Whose Views on Death Will Blow Your Mind

A roof swept up like the shape of a boat. It’s the first thing you notice when you wander into a village in Tana Toraja (pronounced Tah-nah Tow-rah-jah), a small region in the highlands of the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. The exterior walls are piled high with horns of various buffalo, signifying the wealth of the family. It’s really unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. But there’s something even more unexpected about these traditional houses, called Tongkonan. They are reserved almost exclusively for death.

Traditional Tongkonan in the village of Kete Kesu
Buffalo horns adorn the exterior of a Tongkonan in the village of Kete Kesu

Yes here in Toraja (as the locals call it, though the name Tana Toraja literally translates to “Torajaland”), you find a culture where life revolves around death. Though deeply Christian, they still maintain their animist beliefs on death, sending their dead off in extravagant ceremonies that last days.

House of the Dead

The Tongkonan are family houses that the family does not usually live in. Instead, they serve a ceremonial role and are used to store the embalmed corpse while the family has a chance to save up enough money for the funeral, costing thousands, or even tens of thousands of U.S. dollars. That process can take months, or even years!

A newer Tongkonan adjacent to a very modern house. The modern house is the primary residence of the family

Traditionally, during this period before the burial, the family considers their deceased to actually still be alive, but ill! And, as an Indonesian documentary filmmaker I shared a bus ride with explained to me, the corpse is dressed daily and served regular meals. Another Indonesian friend, who actually met someone’s deceased (or “ill”) uncle, had to thank the corpse for being a gracious host before leaving!

Extravagant Funerals

Those extravagant funerals are what the Torajan people are really famed for, enormous events where the entire extended family and town show up to pay their respects and present offerings for sacrifice. I was lucky enough to catch one of these funerals while I was there, a rather gruesome, yet fascinating event, which you can read more about here.

Rumor has it that some outlying villages still maintain an ancient practice where a Shaman puts a spell on the body at the end of the funeral and the deceased “walk themselves” to their graves! It’s a very rare practice these days, but supposedly it still occurs. Try Googling “Toraja Death” and you’ll see that you get a bunch of results about zombies! Fair warning though, some fairly gruesome images will pop up in the search results…

Burial Rituals

Torajans maintain a strong belief in the afterlife, so their dead are buried in caves equipped with tools they would need in the beyond (hence sacrifices…oh and cigarettes, those seem to be popular in the graves). These caves are watched over by rows of Tao Tao, essentially carved life-size wooden effigies of the deceased.

Tao Tao
A row of Tao Tao keep watch over the entrance to the burial cave in Londa

One of these caves can be explored in the village of Londa, where a local kid guides you through the cramped, grave-filled cave by oil lamp. Many graves are so old that the coffin has rotted away, leaving a pile of bones covered with cigarettes that family leave when they come to visit. “This is 1,000 years old,” my friend translated as we passed a skull that had sunk into the floor of the cave. Right next to it was a brand new coffin, emblazon with a large cross. It was an eerie experience walking through a cave full of dead people and my friend and I both neglected to crawl through to an inner chamber of the cave!

Burial Cave
A collection of skulls outside the burial cave in Londa
Burial Cave
Our guide (on the right) illuminates a collection of skulls in the burial cave at Londa using his oil lamp. To the left you can see that offerings of cigarettes have been left for the afterlife.
Burial Cave
A new casket in the burial cave at Londa. Money has been left as an offering for the afterlife.

Not all tombs are this way though. The village of Lemo, renowned for it’s Tao Tao workmanship, entomb their dead in the side of a cliff, just like a mausoleum. And during my walks through the region, where a local Torajan family who spoke very limited English invited me into their home, I spotted numerous free-standing, mausoleum-like tombs that held just one casket. Maybe burial rituals were evolving with the times?

Tao Tao
The burial cliff in Lemo as rows of Tao Tao keep watch
A modern Mausoleum in Tana Toraja with a Tongkonan rising up in the background

Still, though, the four days I spent in and around Rantepao, tourism central of the Toraja region, felt like a trip right into the middle of a National Geographic documentary! For their unique culture made the Torajan people one of the true highlights of my impromptu Indonesian adventure!

A Mosque in Rantepao
Rice Field
Women plant rice in a muddy field near Rantepao

Death in Toraja at TED

After I initially published this post, a friend referred me to a TED Talk about the Torajan view of death and how it differs from that of the west. You can check it out below!

Don’t forget to check out my tale about what the funeral was like! It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before!


By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

27 replies on “Tana Toraja: A Culture Whose Views on Death Will Blow Your Mind”

Fascinating article! I would love to have the opportunity to experience this in person and so appreciated your images and descriptions in regard to the elaborate and at times lengthy death and funeral processes. This type of ritual can differ greatly across the world and can be amazing aspect of a culture to explore and to work to understand in great depth.

It was FASCINATING to experience in person, especially the funeral (which was very bloody), which you can read more about later this week! And I agree. I feel like, by and large, most of the world handles death in rather similar ways (usually dictated by your religion). There are a few notable exceptions to burial rituals though, like the Torajan people or the concept of a “sky burial” in Tibet (where the ground is frozen and wood is scarce…the body is chopped into little pieces and birds eat it…). While quite strange compared to what we’re used to, it really does provide an interesting look into a culture!

Absolutely! I mean it when I say that it literally felt like I was stepping right into one of those National Geographic documentaries I used to watch growing up! I know that in this modern world there are still places that maintain their unique cultures (like Bhutan) but it’s getting to be increasingly rare.

The only reason I went is because I had a friend who was in Bali right before I got to Indonesia who had heard about this and he was like, “Dude, you HAVE to go to a funeral!” I’m glad I did! It was by far the most interesting part of Indonesia that I saw! And to be able to experience a funeral was really special (albeit very bloody)!

I know, right? For me, traveling is all about experiencing what’s different from your life. This really was quite the mind blowing experience as it’s so difficult to conceive of! Really, really fascinating place!

If you do go next year, bear in mind that peak funeral season is during July and August. Coincidentally, it’s also peak tourist season so booking a room ahead of time would be a good idea (I spent 4 nights in Rantepao and stayed in 4 different hotels at a plethora of room rates).

You know, it sounds creepy, but being there, it really isn’t. I think seeing it in person you gain a respect for a culture that differs so wildly from your own which removes that creepiness factor. But yes, very cool indeed!

This is a really great piece, very readable and well presented. I liked it a lot. I was there last year and loved it. The boat houses aren’t just for embalmed corpses though, they are people’s homes, storage buildings, many things. They are a popular design in that area because of their beliefs and corpses can be stored in regular buildings too. What was your favorite thing about the area?

I think I just heard you on the radio last week talking about this, with a woman interviewing you. You had mentioned something about little babies that die are put in a hollowed out part of a tree and actually become one with the tree.

Wow Indonesia is very interesting place for local and international visitor. Cool Aaron

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