A funeral in Tana Toraja

(Note:  This post is jumping ahead a few weeks from my last post.  I’m skipping over our last few destinations like the Ternate, Tidore, Manado, Togian Islands and Tentena) in an attempt to get this blog up to date, but will try to backfill the missing ones soon.)

Warning:  some photos may be offensive!

Funeral Tongkanan

Funeral Tongkanan

Tana Toraja is the mountainous area of South Sulawesi, famous for its coffee, cooler climate, and most of all, their elaborate funerals and burial rituals.

I find it somewhat absurd and uncomfortable that people (us included) come to this area to attend funerals and to gawk at burial sites, old bones and witness wholesale massacre of buffalo and pigs.  But it’s also a fascinating area, and it does feel like we have stumbled our way into something out of a National Geographic magazine.

We arrived in Rantepao, the main town of the Tana Toraja area late on Friday night after a 10 hour drive, and our driver had conveniently organised for his friend to meet us at the hotel.  His friend, of course, is a tour guide, and happens to know of a funeral that was to be held the next day.  He could take us, explain the rituals and ensure that we have a good time.  I was a bit hesitant at first, as the whole funeral tourism thing is just a bit weird to me.  However, that was what we were here for, and so we signed up for our private funeral ‘tour’ the next day.

And what a day it was.

Arriving at the funeral area

Arriving at the funeral area – there were several stand for guests, all facing the funeral Tongkanan

A death in the family

It seems that life in Toraja is solely focussed on the dead.   When a family member dies, there is a brief funeral at the time, but the deceased is kept in traditional houses known as ‘tongkanan’ for years, until such time that the extended family has raised enough money for the more extravagant funeral that the deceased deserved.

These second funerals will go on for days, with much singing, dancing, sacrificing of buffalo and pigs.  The funerals can be attended by hundreds or even thousands of guests, according to the social and economic status of the dead, and their family.  The amount of money that is spent on the funerals is mind-boggling.  Many buffalo and pigs are sacrificed, donated by many of the funeral attendees.  The standard, run of the mill buffalo will start at 30,000,000 rupiah (NZD $3,100+) but the quality buffalo of the right colour, and with the right markings and horns, will go for 150,000,000rupiah (NZD $15,800+) – ie the cost of a car.

Until the second, more elaborate funeral can be held, the dead as treated as though they were sick.  They are offered things like coffee, tea, cigarettes, food and money.  Once the full funeral ritual is observed, the dead person can begin their journey to ‘paradise’. Traditionally they used various herbs to preserve the body, but in these modern days, they use formaldehyde.

In our case, the deceased, a woman, died 4 years ago, at around 90 years old.  This was a particularly large funeral apparently, and we were lucky to be a part of one this size.

The woman for whom the funeral was held.  She died 4 years ago, aged 90.

The woman for whom the funeral was held. She died 4 years ago, aged 90.

The day before the funeral, the casket was removed from the Tongkanan where it had been for the last 4 years and was paraded through the village.  This gives the deceased the opportunity to say her final goodbyes to friends and family, before being sent on her way to ‘paradise’.

Upon our arrival, we were taken to the family’s ‘VIP’ stand, to be introduced to the daughters of the deceased.  We handed over our donation of sugar and cigarettes (it’s tradition!), and they offered us coffee and snacks.

I don’t know how our guide managed it, but unlike other guests who moved on from the VIP area, we ended up staying there for the entire day, giving us excellent views of the proceedings, but also the opportunity to talk to the extended family.  Later, some of the women asked me to join them in the women’s ‘section’ .

Sitting with women family members

Sitting with women family members

where they offered me betel nut leaves to chew on.  Having seen the red-stained teeth and lips, and in many cases, the lack of teeth, I politely declined.  We did, however, join them for a lunch, sitting cross-legged on the bamboo floor.

The old woman sitting in front of me (in the photo above) invited me to chew betel leaves with her. Having seen the red stained lips and in many cases, lack of teeth, I politely declined. She was a lovely lady, stroking my arm and telling me that I was ‘putih’ (white).

The casket on the funeral Tongkanan

The casket on the funeral Tongkanan

There were several processions of family members parading past the guests.  Some wore traditional costumes, some carried gifts of food and drink to be offered to the guests.

The grandchildren at the start of the procession,

The grandchildren at the start of the procession,

The procession.

The procession.

Food offerings for the family and their guests.

Food offerings for the family and their guests.

After lunch, a group of men formed a circle, holding hands, and performed the Ma”badong – a monotonous chant sung to honour the deceased.  Different sections took it in turn to sing their part of the performance.  As they chanted, the circle slowly turned.

The Ma'badong - a ritual where they sing a monotonous chant to honour the deceased.

The Ma’badong – a ritual where they sing a monotonous chant to honour the deceased.

The worst part of the whole day (which I did know about before hand) was the number of pigs and buffalo that are offered to the family as sacrifices.  At some funerals (and perhaps on other days) this can be a real blood bath.  Fortunately, I didn’t witness any animals being killed, but there was plenty of evidence of what was going on.  Pigs were paraded, squealing loudly at their obvious discomfort, on bamboo carriers in front of guests, before being taken to the side to be ‘dispatched’.  If they were lucky.  Often they are left lying in the hot sun for a few hours before being mercifully slaughtered.

Pig given as an offering to the family.

Pig given as an offering to the family.

Once killed, gas torches were used to singe the hair off the pigs before they were hacked into small pieces with axes and machetes.    This was a bit too close for comfort, especially as the smell of the burning hair wafted over our way.

Scorching the hair off the dead pigs,

Scorching the hair off the dead pigs,

The meat was butchered with axes and machetes

The meat was butchered with axes and machetes

The finale of the day was the buffalo fight, where two buffalos are brought together to fight it out to the death.  I was dreading this part and was quite prepared to walk out if I needed to.  But it ended up being more of a comedy show that anything as they couldn’t get the buffalo’s to fight!  They brought out several pairs but they mostly weren’t interested in anything but grazing.  Two had a go at each other for a few minutes (and my heart sank), but they suddenly turned, and ran riot through the crowd.  How no one was injured is beyond me – again, no concerns regarding safety here.  I was pleased that we were well up and out of harm’s way.

Bringing the first buffalo through for a buffalo fight,

Bringing the first buffalo through for a buffalo fight,

In the end, we went home without seeing a proper buffalo fight, and the buffalo all lived to see another day.

With the warm welcome from the family and friends, I had to remind myself that we weren’t guests, but in fact had paid to be there.  It was strange feeling to be so closely involved with the immediate family but they really did appear to be happy to have us there.  (Imagine having camera-toting tourists at a funeral back home in NZ?!)

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We weren’t the only tourists there, in fact 1-2 busloads showed up at one point.  They were also invited through the family VIP’s area to offer their donations of sugar and cigarettes, and to have a drink and biscuit, but none were invited to stay on to sit with the family and enjoy lunch with them.

What appalled me, however, was the complete and utter lack of respect that many of the tourists had for the family and other guests.  They had no qualms about walking through the middle of proceedings, and sticking cameras in their faces as though they were monkeys in a zoo.  It was downright embarrassing. Whilst some of my photos may give the impression that I did the same, all mine were taking with a 55-250mm zoom lens from the VIP stand.

All in all, it was fascinating day.  See the slideshow for more photos.

Slideshow:

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About BusyLizzy

Normally I live in NZ but having re-discovered the joys of independent travel over the last few years, I decided it was 'now or never' and am taking some time out to see what the world has to offer.
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2 Responses to A funeral in Tana Toraja

  1. Debz says:

    Wow…sounds like an interesting day….and to be up so close and involved …not sure I could handled the animal “part” though….but guess its all part of the cultural….some pretty cool pics….

  2. Pingback: Death and burial sites in Tana Toraja - Busy...Travelling

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