Funeral ceremonies in Tana Toraja

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June 4th 2018
Published: June 6th 2018
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It poured with rain all night, but miraculously it’s dry with a glimmer of sunshine in the morning. We meet up with our Toraja guide Enos who tells us he has found a funeral ceremony we can attend. He takes us to a small shop where we can buy a carton of cigarettes as a gift for the mourners, presumably to help them smoke their way to the next world a bit faster. As we drive along, Enos explains that the length of the funeral is dictated by status or, these days, wealth. A budget funeral lasts 2 days and requires the sacrifice of 5-6 buffalo, while a top end ‘complete funeral’ lasts a week and can involve up to 100 buffalo and numerous pigs being slaughtered. It’s a massive cost for families, even with help from extended family members working overseas on better wages. The deceased person is embalmed and kept in the home – sometimes in the coffin and sometimes not – for six months or more while the family save and plan for the funeral, during which time they are referred to as being sick not dead. We stop to inspect a couple of highly prized ‘spotted’ buffalo which are creepy, almost hairless creatures with pink skin and black splodges. They look almost albino and have very disconcerting eyes that are such pale bule they look almost white. A regular black buffalo costs US$3000 but one of these will go for up to $50,000, such is their rarity. Then can fetch even more if exceptional.

A half hour drive takes us to a village where cars are piling up. We need to walk the rest of the way. Enos sets off at a brisk pace up the steep unmade road as we lag behind, picking our way carefully. Eventually we reach a grassy area about 40 yards square, already churned to mud, with a couple of brick built houses and a series of bamboo platforms all topped with the traditional Toraja house roof, shaped like the horns of a bull, or like a boat, depending on which mythology you believe. The focus of the proceedings is a two story platform which houses the coffin on the top story, and a small bamboo shelter where the chief mourners sit. Mourners come from far and wide and seem to be have been invited to arrive in groups. As each group arrive, they process around the square carrying their gifts before being settled on one of the numbered bamboo platforms where they are served tea and cake. Many of them have brought pigs, which most distressingly have been brought in tightly trussed to bamboo poles, and these are dropped off with the pig handlers at the entrance to the square, and then carried across to disappear out the back somewhere. They are still alive and at least one of them is squealing in high distress. Buffalo are also being brought in. They are quite agitated too sensing this will not end well, and they are usually lead by a youth on a piece of rope. Every 20 minutes or so, the family mourners process around the square, led by a woman who sings into a microphone in an eerie, unworldly lamenting voice, accompanied by two men on bamboo pipes. Stirring announcements are made over the PA system, saying who knows what. Modernity mixes with tradition. There’s a fellow recording everything on a massive video camera, and another with a camera mounted on a drone. We wander around with the other tourists, snapping away, and people are very happy to be photographed. After 45 minutes we get up to go. Enos takes us to the back of the building, where the first of the pigs has been killed, and it is being immolated by a man with a large flame thrower like the ones you see being used against the Japanese on Iwo Jima in 1944, who is burning off the hair before the pig is barbecued. There is an unpleasant smell of burning flesh mingled with blood. Most of the Western ladies watching look rather sick.

We ask to use the toilet before we leave. None can be found in the main buildings, so Enos takes us to a nearly farm where we pick our way through the churned up mud and shit by the pig sty to get to the toilet. Literally we are pissing in a pig sty. It stinks. Children’s toys lie in the mud next to sections of a pig's leg, while a cat licks up day old blood on a plastic sheet where the blood and entrails suggests a pig was recently slaughtered. We try not to retch. Surreally, next to this is a raised wooden platform surrounded by plastic sheeting, where judging by the noises off, two people are having it away. Probably the most bizarre toilet stop we have taken for some time.

Back in the car and we ascend a potholed road higher into the mountains. Suddenly there is a massive traffic jam. Enos peers forward and announces there is a funeral procession, probably heading in the same direction as us. He suggests we get out of the car and walk, so we can see the procession and get to our next stop quicker. We obey, and pick our way through the ongoing stream of motorbikes while trying not to fall into the culvert. We do indeed catch up with the procession, which is apparently moving a coffin from one place to another. The coffin is in a wooden strcture covered with a fabric tent, mounted on bamboo. A teal of young men move it a few metres then rest for a moment before moving on again. It’s painfully slow progress. We carry on the up the hill and reach a small village of old style Torajan houses called tongkonan. They are built on stilts and made from wood, and their min distinguishing feature is their extraordinary roofs, which are shaped rather like a pair of bull’s horns, rising up on either side from the front to the back of the house. The older ones are made from bamboo, through which grass and plants eventually grow. The wood is intricately carved, and most feature a carved bull’s head at the front, together with a pole on which is mounted the horns of all the bulls that have been sacrificed by the clans. In this village the houses are lined up on either side of a central lane and look hugely imposing.

Eventually we walk back down the hill and rejoin our driver. Back in the car we drive for well over an hour in the rain, climbing ever higher. The scenery is beautiful but as the cloud descends we can see less and less. Finally we stop at the first tourist restaurant we’ve been to all holiday. We’re only the second people to be seated, but as the place fills up, every other table gets served except us. It transpires that our order got lost, and they then made one not two portions. We share the single portion and leave, thoroughly out of sorts. It takes just as long to go back down the hill as it did to climb it. The roads are terrible, and the driver has to slow down endlessly to avoid potholes, take a tight turn in the road or squeeze past a truck with inches to spare. We’re grateful to get back to the hotel and enjoy a shower and a cold beer.

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