We call them “National Geographic Moments.” They are the times we get to experience a unique and exotic culture, something you see in the pages of the iconic magazine but never expect to see in real life. During our four-day stay in the Tana Toraja in central Sulawesi, we had one continuous Nat Geo moment that allowed us to experience some of the most unique funeral ceremonies on Earth.
Note: I previously wrote a post about a visit to a funeral with photos and descriptions of the brutal animal sacrifices. This post will not show or discuss any animal sacrifice, so vegetarians and animal lovers can read on without fear.
Tana Toraja Funerals
Upon arrival in Rantepao, we met a guide named Amos, who turned out to be one of the most friendly, knowledgeable and passionate guides we’ve ever had. Amos knew of a funeral in the area and offered to take us to the funeral and some of the main sites south of Rantepao.
When we arrived at the funeral, we felt awkward and out of place. Makeshift bamboo and tin shelters had been set up to create an arena-like atmosphere and hundreds of people dressed in black were under the shelters talking and socializing. Amos spoke to the family and they invited us to have a seat. We gave them a carton of cigarettes as a gift and were offered prime seats facing the courtyard. Several family members came over to pose for photos and talk with us and we were given tea and treats.
There were three American guys we met later who ended up at the same funeral and they were well received too, but ended up drinking palm wine with the boys who were sacrificing pigs and didn’t get the seats of honor like we did.
Processions of families arrived and took seats in a courtyard. They were offered tea, coffee, cigarettes and palm wine. Each family brought a gift and a master of ceremonies read aloud what presents had been brought. Every gift is meticulously recorded, and when a member of another family dies, it is expected to reciprocate with an equal or greater donation. This can be a source of revenge. Give a family you don’t like a prized buffalo or an extravagant gift and they will have to reciprocate when you die.
When a person dies in the Toraja culture, they are considered “still sick” and not dead until the funeral, which can be anywhere from a few months to a few years after the person has died. The time between death and the funeral allows for family members to travel home and for enough pigs and buffalo to be accumulated so that a proper send off can be arranged.
It is not polite to ask how long a person has been dead – if there is a long interval between death and funeral it is a sign that the family didn’t have enough money for a proper funeral. However, we did learn that the man at the funeral was 70-years-old and had been dead for two years. Amos said a man in his village has been dead 10 years and hasn’t yet had a funeral. This is a source of gossip and mockery in his community.
So where is the body in the time that they are “still sick” prior to the funeral? They are still in the house. They are injected with embalming fluid and liberally covered with sheets and sarongs to preserve the body. When alive, the people sleep facing the north, but in death they sleep towards the south. A white flag is placed outside the house when a death has occurred.
On the last day of the funeral, the body is taken to its final resting place. From the house to the burial site, bodies are carried in ceremonial houses that can weigh up to 600 pounds. It can take up to 50 people to carry the houses.
The ceremony isn’t a sad affair in general. Usually the family is sad and mourns the first weeks after death but has usually found some closure by the time of the funeral. The last day of the ceremony, however, when the body is moved to the tomb is a sad day with much crying because the body is officially dead.
Toraja Baby Graves
After the funeral, we visited some baby graves in the area. If a regular funeral isn’t surreal enough, the death of a baby leads to an even more unique burial. When a baby dies, it is placed in a palm tree. Since coconuts produce milk, it is thought that the baby continues to live with the tree.
The babies are placed standing up in a hole carved in the palm tree and face away from their parent’s house so that they aren’t sad to see them. A covering of sticks and straw is placed over the hole, but eventually the tree bark grows over the baby. Some palm trees may have many skeletons inside, which could be a shocking and chilling discovery for a lumberjack.
Tau Tau, or Creepy Effigies
Next, we made our way to Londa, a cave featuring dozens of skulls, rotting coffins hanging from the ceiling and tau tau. Tau Tau, are (creepy) effigies carved to resemble the deceased and placed at the grave. They are carved from jackfruit trees since the wood of the jackfruit is the only type of wood capable of acting as a conduit to the spirit world. But not everyone is elligible for a tau tau. One must be from the highest caste and have at least 24 buffalo sacrificed at their funeral in order to get an effigy.
Some of the coffins have fallen from the ceiling or rotted out, releasing their skeletons on the cave floor. The bones were carefully placed on rocks and the ancestors bring by cigarettes or other offerings for the deceased from time to time.
Later in the day, we visited Lemo, a cliffside with tau tau placed high above in alcoves carved from the rock. It was one of those places that has to be seen to be appreciated. In a photo, it just looks like some dolls on a cliff; in reality, it was strange, surreal and cool.
The Tana Toraja would be a great destination even without the funerals, tau tau and burial caves. The region is a mountainous, rugged area of rice paddies, forests, and beautiful villages. Many people still live in the colorful traditional houses known as Tongkonan. I expected to see a few of these houses; I didn’t know that they’d be everywhere.
In the end, the Tana Toraja was our favorite place in Indonesia, and is one of the most unforgettable National Geographic experiences we’ve had.
Notes on visiting a funeral in Tana Toraja
- Tourists are welcome but it is very much advisable to come with a guide.
- All the guesthouses in Rantapeo can arrange a guide or you can ask around with other travelers to see if they have recommendations.
- Visitors should wear dark clothes and dress conservatively.
- We were offered tea at both funerals and were treated very nicely by the families.
- Photography is welcome, just ask your guide where to take photos so as to not be offensive.
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The skull and cigarettes photo made me think of a caption – “You died of lung cancer, so here’s more cigarettes for you!”
Sounds like you & Kristi had a pretty unique trip there…
I think the same thing looking at that photo! It is sort of ironic.
It is hard to imagine a funeral being “a tourist attraction”. But, on the other hand, I doubt there is any better way to truly understand local customs and get a real sense of the people. The tree with the baby graves is, well, I can’t find the right words, unnerving. The tongkonan are amazing.
The people are, for now at least, really open about sharing their culture and funerals. We saw a big group of tourists heading out to a funeral without a guide and they were all dressed inappropriately.
The baby graves are very unnerving, and yes, the Tongkonan are really cool. A lot of people still live in them.
Shame on the big group of tourists! People’s lack of respect may cause those folks to not be so warm and inviting about their world. It’s all about respect.
What great insight into another culture. Whenever you look from one culture to another it often seems strange but I wouldn’t be a fan of the dead body in my house.
Especially because their houses are really small. A dead body takes up some prime real estate.
What a privilege to attend. Your photos as always are astounding! The rituals surrounding death around the world are so vastly diverse. I ma certain these people would think some of our North American funerals very unusual.
You are right, I am sure they would think some of our rituals were strange. It seems like a lot of rituals like weddings are fairly similar, but death ceremonies around the world are still very unique and traditional.
Torajan people’s lives really revolve around death. I learned that it is still cheaper to build a beautifully decorated big Tongkonan than to hold a funeral which can cost billions of rupiah.
That is crazy. I think the custom is great, but it is sad when it derails a young persons education if they have to use that money for a funeral or something. Did you all enjoy your time there? How is Sri Lanka?
My guide said he wouldn’t be able to travel like me because he had to save a lot of money for all the funerals he had to attend — i.e. that of his extended family members’. I don’t know if that is also the case for other Torajans though. But overall the trip to Toraja made me want to explore the rest of Sulawesi.
Anyway, Sri Lanka was great! It was even better than my first trip three years ago, although it didn’t start quite well. The food was very delicious, the people so friendly, and the ancient sites very captivating. You should go!
Jeff, thanks for the wonderful glimpse into these rituals. Your description of the experience as “National Geographic Moments” is perfect. We felt that way when we encountered the real “Whirling Dervishes” in Sudan. As always fabulous photos. Amazing that the people are so open. ~Terri
The people were very open and accepting there, which was great. Of course, it wasn’t exactly a solemn affair, more akin to a bullfight than a death ceremony. I can only imagine the whirling dervishes in Sudan must have been cool.
Wow, I can see why you consider these moments NG Moments! I had not idea these rituals even existed, would have been such a privilege to participate. Those funerals must be expensive… The baby graves however is a bit outside my comfort zone. Awesome post Jeff!
Yes, the funerals are incredibly expensive. Some families no doubt go broke putting them on, and being a Christian enclave in a Muslim nation getting pigs can be costly and challenging. It is a really amazing event!
Amazing. I’d love to experience something like that. Definitely a NG experience. Indonesia is on the list!
You’d love Indonesia. I think it is what southeast Asia was 25 years ago. It is hands down our favorite country in the region, of course we haven’t done Burma yet!