The Toraja (also known as Torajans) are an ethnic group most people likely haven’t heard about, but they’ve been the focus of anthropologists for centuries. This ethnic group calls a mountainous region of South Sulawesi, Indonesia home. Their name comes from the Bugis language and means “people of the uplands.”
Jump ahead to these sections:
- View of Death and Dying in Torajan Culture
- Torajan Funeral Ceremony Traditions
- How Torajan Culture Remembers the Dead
The reason the Torajan’s are such a focal point for study and research has to do with their elaborate funeral rituals. Taking an inside look at death in different cultures reveals a lot of interesting facets of human history and culture, and this is especially true for the Toraja people. These people follow a belief system known as Aluk, which combines law, religion, and daily habits. In this guide, we’ll explore what happens during a Torajan funeral ceremony.
View of Death and Dying in Torajan Culture
The majority of Torajan people today are practicing Christians or Muslims. However, a small percentage still practice the local belief of Aluk Todolo or “Way of the Ancestors.” This is a type of belief system that believes non-human things like animals, plants, and inanimate objects have a spiritual presence. When it comes to funeral customs, even the Christian and Muslim Torajas include Aluk practices in their rituals.
Death and wealth
For the Torajan people, wealth is incredibly important, but not for the reason you might think. While in western societies, we think of wealth as a way to make our current lives better. You might wish for a higher income to buy a home, a nice car, or go on a fancy trip. This isn’t the case for the Torajan.
Having a lot of wealth accumulated throughout one’s life is the best way to afford an extravagant send-off when one dies. The more money the family spends on the funeral, the higher the social status. When someone dies, the entire community comes together in a celebration that lasts for days or even weeks. Wealth is a way to make this celebration truly memorable.
In the Torajan belief system, death is not something that happens suddenly. This is a gradual process as the soul travels towards Puya or the “Land of Souls.” From a young age, people in this part of the world are taught that death is a natural part of life. Deceased relatives are treated similarly to sick relatives, and they’re brought necessities like food and water.
All of the Torajan death rituals are a way to ensure the soul travels to the afterlife without issue. Once the final funeral custom takes place, the soul is raised to the Torajan version of Heaven (Puya). Once there, the soul rests with god and has a fulfilling, happy afterlife.
Torajan Funeral Ceremony Traditions
The Torajan funeral customs are some of the most unique and recognizable in the world. They’re all a way to strengthen the bond between the living and the dead. A series of ceremonies (Rambu Soloq) take place over several days. Unlike in other parts of the world, the body is not embalmed, buried, or cremated at this time. It’s stored under the same roof as the family.
Caring for the body
As mentioned before, these are costly funerals. The family raises funds to put their loved ones to rest with the most extravagant means possible. This process might take days, weeks, or even years. During this time, the body stays in the home with the family.
The deceased body is cared for as if it was sick and not dead. That means family members feed, care for, and take out their relatives as though they’re still a part of the family. During this time, the soul is on its way to the afterlife. It won’t reach this next destination until the funeral traditions are completed in full.
Once the family has enough to begin the funeral process, it’s time to visit the buffalo-slaughtering fields. The family invites friends and community members to these important fields to slaughter buffalos and pigs. This is a symbolic way to bring peace to the resting soul.
Prior to slaughter, the animals take part in a trial of strength. All of these steps are a way to ensure the soul rests peacefully in the afterlife, even if they’re hard for outsiders to understand.
Family members then slaughter the buffalo and pigs, distributing the meat to the funeral guests in accordance with their social standing. The horns of the slaughtered animals are to be placed in front of the house of the next of kin. The more horns, the higher the social status.
Putting the body to rest
The Toraja place their loved ones’ bodies to rest in a unique way. The body isn’t buried until 11 days after the ceremony, and it’s not buried at all. Instead, the family brings the body to a cave which acts as a makeshift tomb.
To mark the final resting place, a wood-carved effigy (known as tau tau) is shaped into a likeness of the deceased. This decorates the outside of the tomb. The wooden replicas watch over the deceased.
How Torajan Culture Remembers the Dead
The Torajan’s relationship with the dead doesn’t end after the funeral process. These people have a very unique way to remember family members. In a process known as the Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses.
This is a yearly ritual that takes place every August. During the ceremony, families recover the bodies of the deceased. They wash, groom, and dress the bodies in new clothes. If any burial boxes are damaged, they’re replaced.
The families then walk their family members around the village following a path of straight lines. According to local myth, these lines connect with the supernatural, helping the deceased soul find their way back to the afterlife. This is just another way for the Torajan people to honor their dead.
Modern Torajan and Tourism
The recent tourism boom amongst these people is a double-edged sword. While it’s allowed researchers and anthropologists a glimpse at this largely untouched belief system, it’s harmed many of the funeral practices in numerous ways.
Many locals feel compelled to continue with these unusual funeral customs as a way to attract tourists. Outside forces like Christian colonists and crusaders did away with much of this spiritual religion in the past centuries, and there’s been a recent push to preserve these beliefs of the past.
While tourism is a boost to the local economy, it’s also encouraged theft and graverobbing. For example, the tau tau figures that watch over ancestor’s graves were stolen so frequently to sell to tourists that many families now keep them at home.
The commodification of culture evokes a lot of important questions for travelers, anthropologists, and Torajan locals. Ultimately, this highlights the importance of being respectful when visiting a new part of the world.
Honoring the Dead: A Tradition with No End
The Torajan isn’t the only longstanding tradition that finds unique ways to honor the dead. However, it’s hard to deny that these people don’t put their own spin on the burial and funeral process. For a tradition that was passed down through generations for hundreds of years, it’s still very much alive today.
While death is a taboo topic in many parts of the world, the opposite is true in this part of the world. Death doesn’t have to mean goodbye, and it doesn’t mean an end to life. For these Torajan, death is just another part of life. The family cares for their dead as they do their living, and there’s a world of beauty in this practice.
Though you might not be willing to dig up your own deceased relatives on a yearly basis, there’s still a lot we can learn from this unique practice. Perhaps death isn’t such a scary part of life, after all. When those we love die, we can use this experience to strengthen our own connection with life and loved ones, both living and gone.
- Kim, Janet. “Funeral Traditions in Tana Toraja.” Emory University: Anthropological Perspectives on Death. 7 February 2018. Scholarblogs.emory.edu.
- Sieber, Claudio. “Love Beyond Death: Toraja’s Unique Funeral Rites.” Vice Asia. 14 February 2019. Vice.com.
- “Toraja.” McGill University: Wikipedia. 2007. Mcgill.ca.