The Strange Funeral Rites Of The Tana Toraja

By Mike Devlin on Monday, April 7, 2014
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“To live in hearts we leave behind / Is not to die.” —Thomas Campbell, Hallowed Ground

In A Nutshell

The Toraja people of Indonesia practice bizarre funeral rituals. The dead spend several months in temporary coffins until the family can afford a funeral. During this time, wooden dolls (pictured) of the deceased are carved and are left looking out over the land. When enough money is saved up, lavish parties are held and the coffins are stored in cliff caves or hung by ropes from the face of the cliffs. Every few years, they visit the mummified corpses of their family members. The bodies are cleaned and changed into new clothes, and damaged coffins are replaced.

The Whole Bushel

Throughout the world, there are many different ways of dealing with death. For those that adhere to the Hindu faith, the body is cremated and the remains interred in a river. In Judaism, the body is quickly buried, usually within a day, whereas in most of the West, bodies are typically embalmed and briefly put on display for mourners. The Toraja people of Indonesia have easily one of the strangest sets of funeral customs in the world. In accordance with their religion, a primitive form of animism called “aluk,” a huge ceremony is held, often months after the person has died, to allow the family to save up enough money.

Animal sacrifice is integral to the ritual, with water buffalo and pigs slaughtered with machetes to help the deceased person make the trip to “Puya,” their version of the afterlife. Little boys run around during the feast, trying to catch spurting blood from the animals in bamboo tubes. Several cockfights are also staged, spilling sacred blood on the Earth. The body is commonly placed inside a cave, and a wooden effigy of the deceased (called a “Tau-tau”) is made to look out over the land. Coffins are sometimes hung on a cliff, where they will dangle for years until the rope breaks.

If that doesn’t sound strange enough, consider what the Toraja used to do. It was once believed that the only way to pass into the afterlife was by visiting the village where one was born. If someone died anywhere other than their home village, an entire procession would be called to help their (dead) body literally walk back to their village. (The difficulty of this was enough to convince most people not to travel out from their villages of birth.)

However, that practice is in the past. One thing they do still do, however, is ceremonially clean the corpses of the deceased. Every few years, they exhume their relatives, change their clothes, and swap out coffins if necessary (maybe they’ve fallen from the cliffside and been damaged).

Show Me The Proof

Featured image photo credit: Arian Zwegers
Wonderful Indonesia: Toraja’s Elaborate Funeral Ceremonies
Incito Tour: Funeral Ceremony in Toraja
Adventure Travel: Funeral Rites in Tana Toraja
Video of buffalo sacrifice and procession (not for the sensitive)