The Cult of Death

There’s a joke in Sulawesi that the Torajans live their whole life preparing for their death. It isn’t too far from the truth. When a Torajan dies, their death is not acknowledged until the funeral ceremony. This takes place over 6 days – 3 days of bull fighting and 3 days for the actual ceremony, consisting of a procession of the body around the village, speeches, chanting, and feasts. The ‘highlight’ of the funeral is the sacrifice of the buffalos. Depending on the status of the deceased the sacrifices can reach up to 100 buffalos. This is because Torajans believe that the only way to reach heaven is on the back of a buffalo and the larger the quantity the more secure the route. A good strong black buffalo costs around 70 million rupiah and they make up the majority of the sacrifice. However, those that can often splash out for one or two albino buffalo with blue eyes. These are thought of as sacred and can cost up to 7 hundred million rupiah – more than a house and 3 new cars!

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In the meantime, the moment a Torajan dies they are covered in a mixture of formalin and traditional herbs to preserve them. This is so they can carry on “living” with their family. They are not thought of as dead, merely sick. The old lady whose funeral we attended “lived” in such a way in her family’s home for just over two years. She sat in the kitchen during the day to stay part of the family routine – she even had meals prepared for her! Every night she was brought into her son and daughter-in-law’s bedroom to sleep (imagine the mood killer!). This entire routine can last up to 5 years whilst the family prepares all the details of the funeral and acquires the money for all the buffalos needed.

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The Torajan graves are also worth a visit. When wandering through the lush paddyfields, we would be warned by superstitious locals to keep clear of the caves for fear of getting haunted. These were filled to the brim with scattered skeletons and rows of lifesize figures that stood guard and watched over their spirits. Walking through the cave, a deep uneasiness steadily grew until it was impossible to remain inside – and we rushed outside for some relief from the oppressive atmosphere. There we stumbled upon an entirely different type of grave – the baby grave. It was believed that babies that died before their first birthday were sacred, and to harness this, they were buried inside a living tree. In this way, the tree would help to transmit the body’s sacredness throughout the village.

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Exploring the region was unlike anything I’d experienced before, the mountainous landscape, the intricate architecture, the extremely open and friendly locals, and most of all the preoccupation with death. Tana Toraja really is the epitome of a place where stories cannot capture its spirit.

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