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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.

62 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fabulous post and great photos – I love the traditional costumes, and beadwork. Maybe the water buffaloes remind the Spanish of their fighting bulls? Or the French equivalent in the Pays de Basque? They certainly don’t shy away from bloodshed!

    November 29, 2012
    • Thanks, Lottie. I hadn’t thought of the French and Spanish explanation, but I like it.

      December 4, 2012
      • I’m probably talking out of my backside Lydia, the real reason is that they are most likely all going to the same travel agent! Just about to read your latest post on fruit…have a good day :)

        December 4, 2012
  2. I had to cancel my trip to Toraja last May because I had a back-to-back trips in between. But looking at your pictures reminds me to make sure I’ll go one day. It’s really interesting how in some societies life revolves around death.

    November 30, 2012
    • Hopefully you’ll make it there soon. Although there is such a preoccupation with funerals and death, it seemed to me that Torajans really do live to the fullest.

      December 4, 2012
  3. beautiful photography!

    December 11, 2012
  4. What awesome colors in your digital photos!

    December 11, 2012
  5. In the middle of a funeral there is time to check facebook- social networking is alive and thriving everywhere…

    December 11, 2012
  6. hi, im a newbie at this bloq world and now i’m here reading your post. i’m happy to read it because i’m a torajan. although i’m not growing up at Toraja. You describe that funeral ceremony in a nice way and it really detailed (i said that because what you have written is all that i know about Toraja funeral, same time i’m ashamed as a Torajan woman). happy to read that. yes, one thing you noticed well about class in our culture “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”…actually this is really happen.

    in words “i love your post and thank you for posting about us ^_^”

    December 11, 2012
    • Terima kasih banyak, Yunita. I appreciate your kind words.

      December 11, 2012
  7. Rae #

    Stunning pictures and great descriptions too. Really enjoyed this post!

    December 11, 2012
  8. free penny press #

    What a great post.. words, pictures, everything!!!

    December 11, 2012
  9. well, astonished! Thanks for sharing this special funeral culture

    December 11, 2012
  10. Yes !! That’s one of so many amazing Indonesian culture.

    Itulah Indonesia. Banyak budaya yang sangat unik-unik.

    Thank’s for your share

    December 11, 2012
  11. indeed, funeral is a celebration for Torajan :) nice photos and story. congrats of being freshly pressed!

    December 12, 2012
  12. It’s only in indonesia

    December 12, 2012
  13. Please don’t kill the animals like cow.

    December 12, 2012
  14. so sad that not so many indonesian know about their own culture..

    December 12, 2012
  15. Nice pics. I visited Indonesia but didn’t know about it. Great post.

    December 12, 2012

    December 12, 2012
  17. Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

    December 12, 2012
  18. I’m quite astonished by the similarities between this Indonesian subset and aspects of Cambodian culture(s). Which, perhaps I shouldn’t be, as the entire region (all the way down to Indonesia) was once a part of the Angkor Empire. Thanks for the great post!

    December 12, 2012
    • Thanks for reading!

      December 12, 2012
    • Well, Indonesia never included as the part of Angkor Empire. Indonesia, in the past, had many kingdoms and Angkor territory was once a part of Indonesia’s biggest kingdom, Majapahit. It’s why Cambodia has some similarities with Indonesia’s culture.

      December 27, 2012
  19. I can’t help but feel sorry for the animals, but what an amazing glimpse into a culture. Thank you for describing it so beautifully.

    December 12, 2012
  20. Wow thanks for this post! I saw the same ritual as well on a travel show on TV, so I totally get what you mean, especially at the slaughtering. Didn’t know about the cigarettes as a token though. It’s kind of sad that these formalities of the slaughtering are so bounded to their culture…

    December 12, 2012
  21. I loved this essay. I have have not gotten to go to Indonesia yet but very much want to. Your explanations and descriptions are comfortably casual yet illuminating.

    December 12, 2012
    • Thanks very much for reading and for the kind comment.

      December 12, 2012
  22. Beautiful photos. Sounds like you had an amazing time. I like the photo of the lady in the colorful clothes.

    December 12, 2012
    • Thanks for reading. I was in love with all of the colorful clothing and textiles. My next post is going to be all about my trip to a Torajan weaving village, so stay tuned.

      December 12, 2012
      • Cool I’d like to read about that. I will follow you. :)

        December 12, 2012
  23. Agustinus.Galugu #

    A local guide in Toraja land(south sulawesi indonesia)/general guide (sulawesi).if any body have a plan to explore for this area,please contact for agustinus galugu.thanks.mobilephone +6285255570938

    December 12, 2012
    • Hi Pak Agust,

      Thanks for visiting my site. If any readers are planning a trip, this is the guide I went with who is mentioned throughout the post.

      December 12, 2012
  24. Great insight into another culture. Cheers!

    December 12, 2012
  25. Amazing photography and story! congrats on freshly pressed :)

    December 12, 2012
  26. Duapri #

    Reblogged this on Memahami Makna and commented:
    traditional from toraja

    December 13, 2012
  27. Nice :)

    December 13, 2012
  28. now this is really a good taste of unconventional cultural custom we’ve come across lately.. great post! you’re a fortunate girl!:)

    December 13, 2012
  29. part of my country

    December 13, 2012
  30. Amazing photos. Thank you

    December 13, 2012
  31. techietalk #

    You write good.Keep going

    December 13, 2012
  32. Reblogged this on addesuryya and commented:
    this is Indonesia

    December 14, 2012
  33. Reblogged this on hayaquero.

    December 16, 2012
  34. Great post with lovely pictures! I love the picture of the girl and all the others. It must have been a great experience!!

    December 16, 2012
    • Thank you for reading and for the nice comments. It really was an unforgettable experience.

      December 16, 2012
  35. nice colors

    December 17, 2012
  36. Reblogged this on Anything Interesting on WordPress.

    December 17, 2012
  37. Not a Torajan, but an Indonesian (not sure why I feel the need to tell you that. Hehe). But what I actually want to say is, these photos are beautiful and I love how you wrote about the whole experience. If you’re even in Sumatra (where I’m originally from), try going to Danau Toba (Lake Toba). The native (Batak) customs there aren’t that different from the Torajans.


    December 18, 2012
    • I agree with you, Yuni. The Batak tradition is similar with the Torajan’s tradition. I had read in an old magazine of my mom that the Torajan were part of the Bataknese in the past when they first arrived in Sumatra. And later, they separated and left Sumatra with boats and anchored at Sulawesi. It is why the Bataknese tradition and the Torajan tradition has similarities :)

      December 27, 2012
  38. Well written article. keep going!

    December 18, 2012
  39. I love these pictures.. Also it reminds me of my own tradition, Bataknese tradition. The funeral also held like this one. It looks more like a celebration rather than a funeral because when a family held a funeral, there must be music which sounds like a celebration of an event.

    December 27, 2012
    • Maria, thanks for checking out my site. Some day I would love to visit more of Sumatra and see more of Batak culture.

      December 28, 2012
      • You’re welcome, Lydia. I hope you’ll find great adventures in Indonesia soon.. :)

        January 1, 2013
  40. kai #

    Kool experience mate! Unique travels are the best :D

    January 7, 2013
  41. I went to Taraja several years ago. Your picture of the pig reminded me of when I was there. I went to a house dedication ceremony, while I was there they shanked the pig. It still gives my wife nightmares.

    January 19, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Torajan Funeral « Collection of designs influenced by nature and culture.
  2. Carved In Stone: The Caves and Graves of Toraja | Ma Vie à Someplace in This World

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