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The Tana Toraja community in Indonesia treats death as a long, tender goodbye – thereby forging a ...
2021-01-25 09:00:00

Live to Die
Death in the Tana Toraja Community

A funeral ceremony in the Tana Toraja community. Source: WiDi (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Live to Die
Live to Die

The passing away of a loved one doesn’t have to be sudden. It can be a gradual process, taking up to several years, with time to spend nights with the deceased, having many more meals and conversations. The Tana Toraja community gives its members time to say their goodbyes to the deceased and accept their death.

Read in 10 minutes

When my grandmother passed away, I was 11. After the last few years of her life spent in my room, where she lived while she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, she was moved to the living room. Beautifully dressed, she awaited guests in her coffin. Our neighbours, mainly women dressed in dignified black, came over to pray on a rosary next to her, sing and embrace my mother. When they left, I would take a stool, sit next to my grandmother and stroke her cold hands and forehead; I sang her songs from my yellow songbook, just like I did when she was still alive. While I did it, my mother would cry quietly somewhere in the background, the kitchen perhaps, and I could feel those were good tears, so I did not interrupt her. I was surprised when on the third day, my grandmother’s jaw fell. My dad – a doctor – explained it was to be expected, and he tied her jaw with bandages. On that day, I put on my patent leather shoes and my grey coat; it was November. We carried my grandmother from home to the church, and then to the cemetery.

All that seemed perfectly natural to me, but when I told my friends at school about it, I saw they grimaced with disgust. “You slept with the dead person in your house for three days?” I was embarrassed, as if we were pagans following some long-gone tradition.

Splendid funerals

If we lived in the Tana Toraja community, in the mountainous heart of the Indonesian island Sulawesi, my dead grandmother would have lived with us for several months, if not years. During that time, we would have arranged a suitable funeral for her, all the while bringing her meals and tea, sleeping next to her at night so that she wouldn’t feel lonely. According to the traditional religion known as Aluk To Dolo (The Way of the Ancestors) she would be considered poorly, and the poorly must be looked after. Her real death would only occur after we’d slaughtered the first buffalo.

In the Toraja community, death is the most celebrated event in one’s life, and funerals are splendid. The biggest – for the members of the wealthiest families – can last several days and host a few thousand people. During months of preparations, colourful traditional tongkokan houses are built; they look like boats, or perhaps like the horns of a buffalo, the most important animal in Toraja culture. On top of that, entire bamboo towns are built for the family to host their guests. During the ceremony, animals are sacrificed in the central square. It is a bloody public slaughter of buffalo, kept especially for this occasion, along with dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of pigs. Everyone sings mournful songs and dances a special dance called badong while drinking palm wine and smoking cigarettes. There might be bullfights (sometimes guests can even place bets), and sisemba’ fights that resemble kick-boxing. In the bamboo pavilions, guests talk, laugh, remember the deceased, get bored, scroll Facebook and post photos from the ceremony, meet each other, flirt. It’s a big social event. Tourists, warmly welcomed by Torajas at the ceremonies – the more the merrier, after all – are even offered special pavilions. The guides often tell them that in Tana Toraja, you live to die.

However, I feel this claim sounds too strong to be real, it seems to make the whole experience sound somewhat shallow. So I asked Kathleen Adams, an American anthropologist who spent several years doing research on the island. “It’s true, Torajas say it a lot when talking to tourists. Therefore, we should place their comments in the right context. What they’re really say is this: You spend money on travelling and exploring the world, and we choose to use our savings to bid a proper goodbye to our loved ones.”

Everyone is born with a debt

The cost of a funeral can be unbelievably high – one buffalo, depending on its colour, horn shape and other features, can be anything from $500 up to even $10,000. According to the traditional belief, it must accompany the deceased on their way to puya, the kingdom of souls. The more buffalo that are slaughtered at the ceremony, the better off the dead will be in the afterlife. And even though only 4% of Torajas observe the local religion of Aluk To Dolo – and almost 90% of the community are Catholics and Protestants (an exception in otherwise Muslim Indonesia) who don’t believe in the impact of ritual slaughter on the afterlife – tradition remains alive. The ceremony remains almost the same as it originally was, only with some syncretic addition of Christian prayers and priests, as well as a Mass.

The costs of the funeral are covered by close and distant relatives, as well as friends and acquaintances. It’s a way of saying thank you to the deceased who looked after them when alive. The funerals of the richest citizens are a form of cementing their high status, but also a way of redistributing goods. Toraja people like to stress that in no other place in the world do the poor eat so much meat. It is provided during funeral meals, and sometimes also as a takeaway. Funerals create a system of interrelation and debt: if someone brings a pig to my grandmother’s funeral then, in due time, I will have to repay with a pig, or even better, with two. “In this community, everyone can feel they are indebted: to their mothers for the pains of childbirth, and to their fathers for the pains of upbringing. Therefore, everyone wishes to give their loved ones a grand, expensive funeral, even if that means going into debt,” explains Adams. And what if someone’s poor and cannot afford an extravagant celebration? Michaela Budiman, Head of Indonesian Studies at Charles University in Prague, explains that one of the last thinkers and experts on this religion – who is no longer with us – told her that it doesn’t matter. Even sacrificing an egg will be enough. The most important part is to do everything we can for the dead, even if it means a modest ceremony a few days after death.

Nowadays, the Torajas seem to have forgotten this. Over the past 50 years, tourists began to regularly appear on the island (in the 1980s and 1990s, it had up to 200,000 visitors a year, Tana Toraja being the second hottest tourist attraction in Indonesia after Bali), and the locals started migrating for work. Since then, funerals became opulent. It used to be only the elites who organized grandiose celebrations but now the middle class is trying to do the same, using it as an opportunity to show off, just like we tend to do when throwing a big wedding.

A tender connection

Even though funeral rituals are fascinating, I am more curious about what happens in Torajan homes before and after the ceremony. Tradition leaves room for a tender connection with the dead. Budiman explains what the Torajans have to say about it: “If we buried our dead just after their passing, it would feel as if a hawk careened suddenly upon them and vanished forever in the split of a second.” There would be no time for acceptance and saying goodbye. The Torajans don’t view death as the end of the emotional connection with a loved one.

When a person dies, first, their body is embalmed – since the 1960s, formaldehyde solution is used as an embalming fluid (traditionally, people used a mixture of areca palm oil, citrus leaves and guava leaves). This way, the body does not have any smell; it just dries slowly and mummifies. Then, it is placed in one of the rooms at home, where anyone can pay a visit, have a meal, or talk to the dead. At night, family members take turns to sleep with the dead, whom they call poorly – makula’ – so that they are never alone. The body is waiting for the funeral, and that requires extensive preparations and logistics. But nobody is in a rush.

In Brian Lehmann’s photojournalism, we can see a dead girl being held by her cousins. Her mother is bringing dinner and tea. Someone is gently swiping a brush over the embalmed body to remove flakes of dried skin. When the time arrives, the immediate family comes to say goodbye and give the dead something to take with them. “We are not afraid of the dead body. Our love for the ancestors is stronger than death,” says one of the Toraja in a micro-documentary by National Geographic.

Later, after the embalming and waiting, there is a ceremony ending with placing the body in a rock grave, ether created by erosion or cut out of the rock especially for the occasion. Kelli Swazey, an anthropologist and wife to a Torajan, explains it in her TED talk, saying that: “Death is not a singular event but a gradual social process.” Amanda Bennett, an American journalist who went to Tana Toraja after her husband died of cancer, wrote about it in her article for National Geographic magazine: “American way of death … glorifies medicine and drugs but fears death, which it considers a failure of technology or will. That leaves most Americans dying in institutions, when the majority say they would prefer to die in peace at home.” She also asks a question: “What if we, like the Torajans, gave ourselves more time to unspool it at its own rate?”

Placing the body in the grave is not really the end, though. Years later, Torajans organize ma’nene, the second funeral. They take the dead out of the grave and out of the coffin, clean the body, dress it in new clothes. Sometimes, they take out several bodies at the same time. It gives the family a chance to meet and exchange memories; the younger generation gets a chance to meet the ancestors who passed away before they were born. Swazey’s husband remembers playing next to his grandfather’s embalmed body after it was removed from the grave. He found it perfectly natural.

Time to grieve

Even back in the 1980s, when Adams began visiting Torajans, ma’nene was a ceremony held exclusively for family members. A selfie with an embalmed grandfather, taken out of his red coffin, is a novelty. So is tying the dead to columns or bamboo poles – famous photographs of these scenes, after which Toraja land became known as ‘Zombieland’ in the US, can be easily found online. Nowadays, ma’nene are open to a significantly larger number of visitors and are advertised to tourists. Globalization modifies old traditions. Photographs of the dead, sometimes taken even at the hospital, are quickly posted online. This time, the Torajans scattered around the world all receive the message: get ready for a trip back home.

When I was 30 years old, my friend died; he was my age. His heart simply stopped in a Castorama parking lot. Only his father saw him there – his mother, wife, and all of us had to make do with one phone call: “M. is dead.” We saw him three days later, in a cold, strange-smelling funeral home. In his wedding suit, waxy-faced. This meeting, in a place that did not belong to any of us, just seemed to make his death feel more unreal. He was cremated straight after the ceremony.

I cannot help but wonder along with Bennett: what would it be like if we gave ourselves more time for pain, sorrow, grief, sweet memories, laughter, and even being around our loved ones’ dead bodies? The long time of grieving and preparations does not mean the Torajans are not suffering and crying. The rituals leave space for that, too. But all anthropologists note that Torajans perceive death as a necessary part of life and therefore accept it. They might still be afraid of it, but they don’t deny it. Death is part of our story, the story of every living being. That much is obvious.

I don’t expect this formula of celebrating death could ever find fertile ground anywhere else. After all, transplanting such traditions would make no sense. Still, there are some things we could take away from the Toraja culture. Perhaps we should talk more about death, so that it stops being such a taboo? We could discuss it over dinner sometimes – for example, how and when we would like to die. Today, we can have some control over it. Would we really want our bodies to be kept alive at any cost? Would we like to be cremated?

We could also use a deeper connection with death; nowadays, we try to separate ourselves from it instantly, hiring service providers to deal with it instead. What if our dead weren’t taken straight to the morgue, out of sight? What if we spent some time with them, looked at them? Maybe even slept under the same roof for one night – or three? Why not stroke their cold skin, why not sing them a song?

When writing this article, I spoke to Kathleen Adams, an anthropologist and lecturer at Loyola University Chicago, and to Michaela Budiman, Head of Indonesian Studies at Charles University in Prague. I also referred to Budiman’s book Contemporary Funeral Rituals of Sa’dan Toraja. From Aluk Todolo to New “Religions(Charles University in Prague, 2013), as well as Kathleen Adams’s Art as Politics: Re-Crafting Identities, Tourism, and Power in Tana Toraja, Indonesia (University of Hawaii Press, 2006) and several press articles published by her. I also referred to an article by Amanda Bennett When Death Doesnt Mean Goodbye published in National Geographic (2016) and her TED MED talk in 2013. Another valuable source of information was the TED talk by anthropologist Kelli Swazey (2017), whose husband is a member of the Tana Toraja community.


Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano


Maria Hawranek

is an independent reporter, born in 1987. She works alongside Szymon Opryszek, with whom she published the books “Tańczymy już tylko w Zaduszki” [We Only Dance on All Soul’s Day Now] (2016) and “Wyhoduj sobie wolność. Reportaże z Urugwaju” [Grow Yourself Some Freedom: Reportage from Uruguay] (2018). A lover of Latin America and life in the countryside.