The Torajan Funeral
If my life was a movie, this day would have been titled: One Funeral, One Proposal and Four Faintings. OK, I only saw two people faint, but you get my drift.
As, I wrote earlier, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of being a foreign tourist at the funeral of a complete stranger, but our Torajan guide, Pak Agust, reassured us we wouldn’t be intruding and that people were used to tourists. The day before the funeral, Pak Agust told us that it’s customary to bring gifts for the family, including bags of sugar or cartons of cigarettes. So we walked into a little shop with Pak Agust and bought some cancer sticks — really I wasn’t thrilled about giving cigarettes, but welcome to the gray area of travel, again.
We drove for nearly an hour to a small Torajan village named Kampung Dole. The drive was picturesque — green rice fields and rolling hills. When we arrived at the village, we followed a steady stream of people up a hill to an area with structures built for the funeral. As we arrived, men stood in a circle chanting, telling the life story of the man who had died. Pak Agust said the chanting was also a prayer in bahasa Toraya (the local language). One of the man’s relatives served as the master of ceremonies for the event. He would occasionally cackle into the microphone, it was a haunting sound. Pak Agust said he did it because the funeral is not supposed to be a somber affair. This was day one of a five day funeral.
As we walked up the hill, several animals were also headed that way. Poor guy, I think he knew what was about to happen. The squealing sound pigs make towards the end is one of the most horrific noises I’ve ever heard.
I want to warn you that after the jump there are some graphic photos of the water buffalo slaughter, this is, however a part of life and culture in Toraja.
After the chanting, the coffin was lifted on to an upper platform, the best view for the funeral.
The traditional dress and bead-work that the women were wearing was truly stunning. I asked if I could photograph them, and they agreed.
I had a good chuckle when I caught the beautifully dressed lady checking her cellphone. Even in a rural village, Indonesia’s mania with cellphones has taken hold, I guess somethings have become universal.
Pak Agust explained to us that Torajan society, even today, is very stratified with upper and lower nobility. You could leave Toraja, become an international celebrity and billionaire but it wouldn’t change what class you were born into. We were attending the funeral of a high class member. Pak Agust said the man was a grandfather.
I wasn’t sure how I would react to watching a large animal being slaughtered. But it was all done in such a matter of a fact way, that I wasn’t in the least bit squeamish. Men tied down the buffalo while kids ran around in flip flops. Then with one swift swing, the buffalo was killed. The buffalo fell to the ground. It moved violently and then after a few minutes it stopped, but then suddenly, a minute or two later, it would spasm. A European tourist fainting caused more of a commotion among the Torajans than the slaughter did. Some wealthier villagers can afford to give the gift of a water buffalo for a funeral, and you can go and pick one out at the water buffalo market (stay tuned for that post).
The water buffaloes are immediately butchered on the spot and the meat and all other parts are distributed to the family and other villagers. The stereotype around Indonesia is that Torajans are very wealthy because of their elaborate funerals. Pak Agust laughed when we asked him about this. He said that Torajans live poorly to save for a funeral. The big funerals will involve the slaughter of more than 24 water buffaloes, a sign of wealth. The buffaloes help transport the soul to the Torajan version of heaven. Traditional homes are decorated with the animal horns, the more horns, the more prosperous the family. Sometimes when people die, there isn’t enough money for a funeral, so the body will remain in the family home, sometimes for years, until enough money is saved for a proper send off. Funerals are usually held from June to October, during the dry season, when it’s easier for people to return home.
All of the foreign tourists were taken to a sitting area. There were large buckets of rice and traditional Torajan food, including pork that is cooked in bamboo. Torajans are officially Christians, but obviously this is blended with old traditions. Missionaries converted Torajans, and Pak Agust told us that before that, in the old, old days, funerals could last months.
On our way back down the hill, we stopped to meet the family and give them our gift. One of the female relatives of the dead man, offered us snacks and deliciously sweet black Torajan coffee. We sat around and chatted with her and then with some other guides and I spoke some French with a tourist from Paris. The amount of French and Spanish tourists in the area was astounding, some guidebook must have really highlighted this. We didn’t meet a single American during our whole trip. While drinking coffee, Pak Agust and another guide, Rudi, told dirty jokes about the type of “flowers” women are. As we prepared to go, the female relative, who was delighted by our Indonesian, decided to tell us she had two sons. We were a bit confused and then a mischievous smile appeared on her face and we knew exactly what she meant. So we all smiled and then took a group photo together.
So, perhaps funeral is a bad word to describe all of this. It really was a celebration.