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.
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!
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!
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…
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.
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!
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?
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!
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!