Tana Toraja Funeral

The Wild Funerals of the Tana Toraja, or My Wife is a Vegetarian Now

Indonesia, Travel

WARNING: This post features descriptions and photos of animal sacrifice. The events pictured made my wife a vegetarian. Read at your own risk. 

An ominous tension hung in the air as the beating of a gong filled the courtyard with hauntingly beautiful sounds. The expectant crowd drew in closer as four machete-wielding men took a firm hold of their water buffalo, preparing to slit their throats as part of the elaborate funeral rituals performed in Tana Toraja, Indonesia.

There was a stake in the middle of the courtyard and I thought they were going to tie a leg of the buffalo to it in order to keep it from running rampant. This was not to be the case. Without warning, one of the men pulled back his machete and hacked the throat of a buffalo, causing it to panic and flail about wildly. It broke free from the killer and took off running – right at me!

Like a rodeo clown, I jumped over a barrier and into a hut as the wounded buffalo ran by me then up the road with blood spurting wildly from its throat, looking like something from a Quentin Tarantino fever dream. Ten Indonesian men chased after him, shouting. The other buffalos had been hacked also, one running amuck into the crowds on the other side, the other two stunned and standing more or less in place, blood gushing from their necks. The crowd cheered with a mix of testosterone and adrenaline fueled excitement. It was more akin to a Mexican bullfight than any funeral I’d been to before.

The buffalo that nearly trampled me and run away from the ceremony, was dragged back to the courtyard and one of the executioners, with a sandal clad foot I might add, kicked him right in the gaping wound in his throat. His foot emerged covered in thick crimson blood. This seemed to agitate the dying beast more than anything, and he swung his massive horns at the “matador.” Another man came over and hacked at his throat with a machete and at last the buffalo staggered and fell to his death.

It was brutal.

Before the sacrifice, my wife decided that she could not watch, left and walked up the street. She is the kind of person who will get upset if she sees a stray cat with an eye infection or a street dog with a limp. Watching the sacrifice was out of the question.

After the killing was over, I had a sinking feeling. I realized that the buffalo that nearly trampled me had run away from the ceremony and went to where she was waiting. I feared she may have seen something nightmarish.

Now, lets move to her point of view. She had taken refuge behind a house about 150 meters up the road, waiting for the events to be over. She heard a great commotion with lots of screaming and shouting, looked out and saw a terrorized buffalo – with blood spewing from a gaping hole in its neck while being pursued by a mob of men – running right at her. Shocked, she ran off crying. The local ladies took her in and tried to console her. They mistook her emotions for fear, not realizing that she was upset by the sight of the wounded and terrorized animal.

When the ceremony was over, I found Kristi. She was sickly pale and had obviously been crying. She couldn’t talk. I saw blood all over the pathway near her, looking like something Dexter would get off on. “Is it too early to joke about this?” I said stupidly. It was hard for me not to laugh about the macabre events – she had gone away to avoid the killing, but inadvertently got the best view of anyone!

(By the way, yes, it was way too soon to joke about it.)

Tana Toraja Funerals

This scene I described takes place almost daily all across Tana Toraja, a region in central Sulawesi, as the local people enact some of the most complicated, colorful and elaborate funeral ceremonies on Earth. Although most are officially Christian, the Toraja hold on to many traditions that predate the religious conversion. The funerals are the most visible.

Toraja Pull QuoteWe hired a local tour guide named Amos to take us to a funeral. With a carton of cigarettes as a donation to the family, we went to the first funeral. Underneath makeshift shelters made of bamboo poles and tin roofs, we saw hundreds of local people dressed in their finest black clothes, taking refuge from the hot sun. We were then assaulted by the smell of burning pig. Two men with flamethrowers were burning all the hair off a pig that had just been sacrificed and the smoke was blowing right into our faces, attacking our nostrils.

Amos led us to a courtyard. It was the day of the funeral devoted to receiving gifts and welcoming the family. In the main courtyard there were three buffalo heads, evidence of a sacrifice earlier that morning. Three machete-wielding men, barefoot, with cigarettes dangling from their mouths, were in the middle of the innards of the buffalo, cutting up the meat and removing the entrails. The different families in attendance each got a portion of the beef.

There was a master of ceremonies who read aloud the names of those in attendance and what they had donated. Every gift is meticulously recorded and a reciprocal offering will be given when someone dies in the other family. Family groups took turns arriving in processions and sat in the shelters. Once seated, the family of the deceased would offer coffee, tea, and cigarettes. They would thank them for coming, chat for a bit, and then another family would parade in and take their place.

We were welcomed with open arms. We posed for photos with many people and chatted with the family. Although it was obviously a bit of culture shock to walk in on the proceedings we quickly became comfortable due to the friendliness of the people. We were jolted back into the surreal reality every time two men walked by carrying a bamboo pole with a squealing pig tied to it, and heard its desperate screams as it was being sacrificed.

Tana Toraja Trekking and an Unexpected Funeral

The next day, led by Amos, we were trekking in the hills north of Rantepao, visiting colorful villages and crossing rice paddies. Unexpectedly, we stumbled upon another funeral. When we arrived, we found the courtyard area was in the middle of tongkonan, the traditional houses of the Toraja. It was a much more colorful and photogenic scene than the day before. Moreover, there were buffalo waiting to be slaughtered. The family offered us tea and coffee and invited us to sit under a shelter. We decided to wait and watch.

Toraja funeral family

We were welcomed by the families, and posed for many photos.

Prior to the slaughter, about 15 buffalo were brought into the courtyard and paraded around. The family selected which ones to sacrifice and which to auction off or keep. Once the sacrificial buffalo were picked, young men led away those who were granted a reprieve. One stubborn bull refused to go, not realizing he had been granted a new lease on life.

There was a small ritual performed where an offering was made to the spirits to make sure these buffalo were suitable to follow the deceased into the afterlife. After the buffalo were anointed, the crowd closed in and nervous chatter filled the courtyard. “Shit is about to get real,” said a guy next to me.

After the sacrifices, as Kristi recovered from seeing things she couldn’t un-see, we made a somewhat somber ascent through the rice paddies. I paid special attention to the many buffalo we passed along the way. They were happy. They are generally free range, often wallowing in mud that locals jokingly call a “buffalo spa.” We saw one buffalo lazing in the shade in a river and another being washed by his master. Their lives are spent eating, working in the fields, enjoying the spa and generally living a pretty good life. When the gong sounds they meet a brutal demise, but they are no doubt treated better than livestock almost anywhere else on Earth.

Buffalo spa

Enjoying the buffalo spa in a rice field.

Some Things Transcend Culture

After seeing the surreal Torajan funerals, I could not get out of my head the vast difference between ceremonies in the United States (or anywhere) and Tana Toraja. The next day at our guesthouse in Rantepao, an ambulance arrived carrying the body of a girl in her 20’s who died the night before of leukemia. Her family lived next door to the guesthouse where we were staying.

There was much crying and wailing as the lobby of our hotel was quickly transformed into an impromptu meeting place, and much food was brought and set out. The guesthouse was next to a church, and people began setting up plastic chairs outside it.

That night, a large crowd assembled at the church and there were speeches, a candle light vigil, beautiful hymns and much crying and sadness. It was a scene exactly like the funerals or memorial services I’d seen in America – they suffer the same shock and sadness at a passing. It was yet another clear example that the things that unite us as people are far more powerful than the differences. We are all sad when a loved one passes, even if we send them off in vastly different ways.

What interesting cultural events have you seen? 


Stay Tuned for a follow-up, G-rated post, where I explain some more things from this fascinating culture. It will be vegetarian and PETA friendly.

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Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~ planetbell1@gmail.com

37 thoughts on “The Wild Funerals of the Tana Toraja, or My Wife is a Vegetarian Now”

  1. Um . . . . . . . speechless!
    OMG OMG OMG I’m with your wife!
    I’d be horrified to witness such brutal killing. Yeah, like something out of a Tarantino movie (not that I would ever ever watch a Tarantino movie).
    We went to a bullfight in a small town in Andean Peru. As soon as they started in with the picadors stabbing the bull we left. Too much cruelty for us.
    We went to a funeral in Bali and watched the body burn, and watched bodies burn in Varanasi. I love to see how other cultures do the things we all need to do, and I totally agree with your last 2 sentences.
    Despite my horror, it’s a very good post Jeff.
    Guess I’m not so speechless after all.

    • Alison,

      Thanks for reading, or should I say, I apologize you had to read that 🙂 We saw the burning bodies in Varanasi too, which was surreal and bizarre. It is interesting what different cultures do for sure!

      The one thing that made this sacrifice tolerable for me was the fact that they treat the bulls really well their entire lives until they kill them, which is better than most any culture can say.

  2. It’s always interesting to find out more about other cultures but I could never watch such a thing…I would have done what you wife did. All in all, it looks like a great adventure. Thank you for the beautiful writing! Have a great day!

  3. I’m sure many people would view this as barbaric, but I disagree. It is no worse than what cultures have done in the past, such as slaying all of the servants and wife/husband so they could go into the afterlife together. As you pointed out, the water buffalo live a darn good life until the gong sounds. I know there are more humane ways to slaughter an animal, but this is what they do and it’s rooted in their traditions and beliefs. All that being said, I hope has Kristi recovered from her trauma.

    • Laura, you are right. It really isn’t barbaric at all. A bit shocking, yes. But life is good and all the meat and leather get used.

      Kristi is still traumatized I think 😦

  4. I won’t be surprised to see different opinions on Torajan funeral procession, especially the buffalo slaughter part. Living in Indonesia makes me quite used to seeing such event, but oh my, I feel sorry for Kristi. Who would have known that a dying buffalo with blood spewing from its neck ran right onto a place she thought was safe? Is she still a vegetarian now?

    • Bama,

      She still eats fish, but she has only eaten meat in Hong Kong with James. So for about six months she has been meat free.

      I wasn’t bothered by the slaughter part myself. It was brutal to watch, but I grew up in cattle country and those buffalo seemed better off than almost all livestock in America.

  5. Kat says:

    I feel for Kristi but I believe such practices are common in Indonesia. Gosh, you’re very brave to take those photos! Just out of curiosity, you mentioned that these funeral rituals take place on a daily basis – do they have people dying in their villages every day?? Sulawesi is not too far from Malaysia, hopefully one day I may have the guts (no pun intended :-)) to see these rituals myself.

    • Kat,

      I think the rituals happen every day. There is a rather large population in the area so I am sure there is daily death. However, I know that July, August and Christmas time are the high season for funerals, since many people are able to return. We were there in November, saw two funerals and walked by several others when we were trekking, so visiting one shouldn’t be hard.

      I’ll be posting a version without blood and death that has more details on visiting 🙂

  6. With your wife for sure on this one Jeff. I will confess to skipping a lot of this post. That’s saying a lot because I love your blog. Sorry I’m of the vegetarian nature myself. 🙂
    I like your pin it buttons by the way.

    • I realize after I posted this how off-putting it can be for people. It received only a fraction of the views as most of my posts and I have to believe the disclaimer turned away many people. Even looking back at those photos, it makes me a little sad.

      I love animals, but the actual sacrifice didn’t bother me really because all the meat and hides are used and the animals generally live a great life until they die.

      You can get the pin buttons on all your photos by connecting something or other on Pinterest. I forgot how, but you might google it. Let me know if you need help with it.

  7. Adventures in Kevin's World says:

    I love the post for the education and cultural aspect, but… yikes. Practices like that are hard for me to comprehend or support. Not the fact that they are being killed (I have butchered several elk in my past and obviously eat meat), but in the HOW. There is no conceivable way to justify being so cruel to any living creature. They can be killed and slaughtered in a far more kind and respectful manner.

    A quick, deep, and accurate slice to the neck would kill the animal quickly and with far less agony – and apparently with less danger to anyone in the vicinity.

    I struggle whenever I hear anyone explain things like this as “it’s the culture.” Sigh.

    • Kevin, you make a good point. I think in general they do tie up the animal’s leg and kill it quicker. This was very dangerous for the crowd and the animal. I couldn’t see what was going on at the other end as I was dealing with my own rampaging bull, but a different buffalo definitely charged into the crowd and hit people.

      I am okay with it all except that they could have killed it quicker. I am with you on that one.

      Thanks for your comments.

  8. Lynn says:

    I agree with Kevin. Not sure why it can’t be done with more expediency and respect. I could only bring myself to view the photos as thumbnails. Still I do enjoy all your posts and learning about other cultures through your eyes and lens.

  9. Jeff, this is funny. I don’t mean your post, I mean what I’m about to say…not funny ha-ha, funny odd. When I left Bali on the ferry to Sulawesi, I decided not to take malaria pills. And came down with something I thought was malaria. I had a high fever, sweats, chills, was delirious, couldn’t get out of bed or eat, and thought I was dying. Then, didn’t. And came out of it, after like 3 days. So maybe it wasn’t malaria (I think it lasts longer, eh?). By the time I could move and walk, my mind was still “fuzzy.” Felt like walking in a dream. So when I saw the buffalo at the funeral, it didn’t bother me much at all—which is truly odd because I disdain cruelty to animals on any level, and I get a sinking feeling at the sight of blood (residual childhood trauma, I think).

    And this is a marvelously good post, Jeff. Things are what things are in life. Seeing them is why we travel. There are many things in foreign countries that seem like they could be different, or better. Like why do men in Saudi Arabia still wear dresses? Culture. Who are we to judge? Still, I am truly happy I almost died before I saw the Tana Toraja funeral.

    • That must have been surreal to have a fuzzy mind and then see the wild funerals and animal sacrifice. I was lucid and it felt like a crazy dream!

      • Yeah, not the greatest time in my life, certainly not the most lucid of times (times are getting less and less lucid as I age it appears!)

  10. Oh Jeff, what a spectacle! And I truly feel for Kristi – I would have been right there with her. I had no idea they did that on Tana Toraja. When we lived in Khartoum, every day brought ritual slaughters of goats on many street corners. It was hard to know where to walk. It too was brutal and I rarely ate meat for many years. Here in the US we’re definitely desensitized to the process. ~Terri

    • Terri, Animal sacrifice is a big deal in lots of parts of Indonesia. I recently read a man’s account of seeing a camel sacrificed in Khartoum. I can imagine that it would be hard to know where to walk! Thanks for sharing.

  11. Jeff, just hearing Kristi’s description of what happened when I met you guys in Hong Kong was enough to make me understand why she went vegetarian/pescetarian. I think a lot of people would change their minds about what they eat if they went to slaughterhouses and saw the killing firsthand.

    I’ll be in Tana Toraja later this year and I still haven’t made up my mind about going to a funeral ceremony. Maybe I will choose to go and put my camera down when the blood starts flowing, or I might document everything as you did here. You’ve touched on a very sensitive subject and it’s brave that you published it (gory photos and all) on your blog.

    • Thanks James. This post received about 1/5 the normal amount of views. i think the disclaimer scared off many people. At first, I felt bad for publishing it, but now I am very glad that I did. It led to interesting comments and I think it is a fact of life and travel that can’t be ignored. It totally took us out of our comfort zone and I am happy for that.

      As for the funeral, definitely go and if there is a sacrifice, stay for it. It was brutal, but also very fascinating. There were so many things going on around the event – makeshift markets selling drinks and cigarettes, friendly family members and friends wanting to talk to us, people auctioning off bulls – that made it an event in itself. It was like going into the pages of National Geographic.

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  13. It sounds gory and I suppose I should be used to it since we have other practices here in Asia that may be just as off putting but I will say I am not. I think it’s just me though so I would probably be like your wife and run away to a place where I will not be able to see it in person…haha…:)

  14. Wow… I think I would have been shocked as Kristi! We experienced a sacrifice ritual on Flores. There was a bull, a pig and several roosters being killed. Maybe more – to be honest, I don’t quite remember it. I just remember feeling very sorry for the animals because the locals didn’t seem to be quite informed of how to really kill the animal quickly. As you were describing above, they kind of missed the machete heaps and the poor animals were just suffering 😦 You’d wish them a quicker death with no suffering. I find it difficult to cope with such things where you know you should not interact because you’re the foreigner here and should respect the local customs :-/…

    • The consensus among the commenters is that the needless suffering of the animal is the most disturbing part. I agree that they should kill them quicker. Sometimes you just have to sit back and observe even though it is difficult!

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  16. Hello. Thank you for your great blog!
    I am vegetarian and like your wife extremely sensitive to animal abuse. I went to the extreme market last year in Northern Sulawesi but avoided the meat department.
    I chose not to go to Tana Toraja because I was concerned about being so upset.
    I will be returning to Sulawesi to dive soon and am wondering if I really am missing something special by not visiting Tana Toraja.
    Would you overall recommend Tana Toraja and do you think I can avoid seeing such gruesome things?
    Thank you so much!

    • I’d say you are missing out by not visiting Tana Toraja. You don’t have to see the animal sacrifice to enjoy it – you can skip that part. But the geography, the houses, the friendly people and the graves in the area are really special. I say go!

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