Death at a funeral


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Asia » Indonesia » Sulawesi » Tana Toraja
May 27th 2015
Published: July 10th 2015
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!! Beware some photos are of a sensitive nature !!

6am. Fresh off the overnight bus, barely checked into our guesthouse and we're already drinking black coffee on the balcony at our accommodation with Jacob (pronounced Yacob). Jacob is a local guide who had somehow latched himself on to us almost as soon as we'd got off our bus in a morning haze. Before long we were deep in conversation fascinated by the funeral ceremonies and the amazing homes of the Torajans - the Tongkonans. Some very morbid stuff happens here but I guess thats what intrigued us. As we spoke, not more than 50yards across the way, a funeral was already in full swing. It was day 1 of the ceremony (food and gifts), luckily for us the slaughter was happening on day 2 - something we would try and avoid.

To get here it took a short flight from Denpassar in Bali to Makassar, Sulawesi and a 10hr overnight bus north to the town of Tanah Toraja. We arrived in Makassar early afternoon and our bus wasn't until 9pm. With the bus stop being in the middle of nowhere we decided to stay put and kill time writing blogs, reading etc for the next 8 hours.

During our time at the station we ate lunch and dinner, it wasn't anything too special but it was filling. There were also a lot of young children, some clearly street children between the ages of 4 - 10 playing football, riding bikes. Every so often they'd stop what they were doing to come and peer over our shoulders or just to say "hello" and stare. One of these children, a disheveled looking boy, came over with a small kitten hanging from his t-shirt, no more than a 6 weeks old. It looked like it was still dependant on its mother. The boy placed it at our feet and pulled its tail until we asked him to stop. He then ran off to play with his friends again. The kitten wouldn't stop meowing as it tried to snuggle under our day pack. Chris went to find the young boy to ask him to take the kitten back to its mother while P stayed with our bags. There was a slight language barrier but Chris managed to get the boy to bring the kitten to the other cats that were laying in the sun behind the building, hoping one of them would be the mother. The boy even had the cheek to ask Chris for money after replacing the kitten.

We later found out from another guest at our accommodation in Toraja that they had a similar experience at the bus station a day or so prior, with the children playing catch and even football with the same helpless animal. The woman said she'd wished she'd put the kitten out of its misery there and then. It was upsetting to see how these children 'played' with the kitten and none of the parents or adults around had intervened.

Back at the table drinking coffee with Jacob we eventually agreed to have him as our tour guide (we didn't really have many options). Starting at 9.30am he was going to take us to the main sites and also to a fairly big funeral ("Day 1" he said) in between. Funerals here are a very public event and the bigger the better, so visitors are always encouraged to attend.

Doing our tour the cheaper way we took public transport (bemo) with our guide to the first stop - Ke'te Kesu. This is where you get to see most things that are associated with Tanah Toraja. First of all there are the uniquely shaped houses and rice barns (Tongkonans) on stilts. These are traditional family homes that are raised off the ground, made in wood with roofs that resemble water buffalo horns. These houses are intricately carved and elaborately painted to show the carving work. The houses are often fronted with a row of water buffalo horns to represent the wealth and popularity amongst their peers. A tally of how many water buffalos were gifted and sacrificed at one or more funerals within that family.

At the rear of this site, bodies of the deceased are placed in man made holes inside of rock faces or their coffins stacked and wedged inside cave openings. Some even hanging off high cliffs. Unfortunately due to looting and the decay the wood, many bones fall to the ground creating mass open craves.

Another really intriguing sight were the wooden effigies (Tao Tao) of the deceased posted outside of the 'gravesites' mainly high up on a bamboo balcony overlooking the land. They are all made to resemble the person who has passed, with the more elaborate effigies being made for someone from an upper class. They are then dressed with the clothes of the deceased. Even before they are hung high on the cliff they are laid next to the body, so that the spirit of the dead can leave the body and enter the effigy.

We walked around the small road with tongkonans on either side of us (always facing north to south), staring up in fascination, the hand carvings on each house were so intricate and were painted mainly in black, red and sometimes yellow. Black for death, red for life (blood) and yellow for Gods blessing. We even got the chance to have a look inside one - they have very limited space with only a few small windows and would fit a family, sometimes of 3 generations.

We moved onto the tombs, first we passed the manmade concrete structures and then the tombs built into the rock face. The tombs in the rock face are hollowed out rectangles about 4m deep, the mummified corpse is placed inside and a wooden door is placed over the hole. A whole family can use 1 'tomb', sometimes removing the remains from a previous ancestor to make room. Further up we met the famous tao tao. The tao tao are made in likeness to the deceased, some are looking very realistic whilst others are quite basic. We passed a collection of random skulls and a pile of bones just lying in a corner with some placed on top of a coffin. Not sure if some were placed out of respect or for touristic effect.

At a Torajan funeral it is custom to bring a gift - locals usually bring pigs or water buffalo, some buffalo can fetch for up to £40,000 in some rich families. The animals are sacrificed/slaughtered to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. Luckily for us a multipack of cigarettes is suffice.

Arriving at the funeral gave us a strange feeling as this would be regarded as a private affair back home but here its the more the merrier (so to speak). There were lots of people there already, family, friends, local villagers and a handful of tourists. Jacob took us to one of the many purpose built seating areas out of the sun and we were offered coffee, cake, some small biscuits and a pick out of a type of goodie bag containing: betel nut, cigarettes & sweets etc. We watched a number of processions as the family & friends made there way across a special seating area. An MC complete with mic and his own podium, hitting a gong letting them know it was time for the next group to pass through.

We'd told Jacob before we started the tour that we didn't want to witness any of the slaughtering associated with day 2 of the ceremony. He told us this is only day one so we should be ok. How wrong he was. When we arrived we noticed a number of pigs tied up with bamboo - these were 'gifts' and we thought nothing of it. After coffee we moved to the other side of the complex to take some pictures of the ceremony itself and some of the attendees, noticing a water buffalo being cut into small pieces and placed into bags. We thought OK, maybe its just a day thing re the buffalo sacrifice.

Then it started! First it was only the sounds we heard - the squealing. And then we saw the blood. Lots of it. Without warning they'd started slaughtering pigs, one after the other. One of the most inhumane & painfully slow deaths to befall any living creature. We tried our best to not looked perturbed as the guests at the funeral carried on as normal, the children didn't even bat an eyelid.

We looked at our guide and he too was unfazed. Had he forgotten our request from earlier?? We thought he was waiting for something in particular and felt somewhat rude to ask to leave and so tried but failing miserably to not watch the scenes unfold. Eventually enough was enough, as soon as another water buffalo rounded the corner we turned to Jacob and asked him could we leave. He seemed fine, and led us away from the slaughterfest. We both felt a little weird and weary after what we'd witnessed and still had 2 other sites on our itinerary.

The following 2 sites; Lendo and Lemo were pretty much the same as Ke'te Kesu, with the tao tao and tombs within the rock metres above the ground. In Lendo a lot of the bodies were buried inside a cave; ducking our way through we had a young boy guiding us, our path lit only by a kerosine lamp. Inside the cave there were old skulls and bones placed precariously on rocks and in crevices, there was even an area where it just looked like a shelf of coffins had just gave way leaving a heap of coffins and bones all just on the cave ground.

What a day! And it was only our first. After getting back just after 5 we washed up went out for dinner and crashed for the night. Exhausted.

There are a number of 2-3 day treks available in Tanah Toraja which included staying overnight in a Tonkonan, we really wanted to do one as we'd enjoyed our trek in Myanmar a couple months back. Unfortunately, Jacobs quote was ridiculously high and put us off wanting to do one. We got talking to other guests at our guesthouse and they recommended that we should do a half day route from the northern town of Batuttumonga an hour drive away.

Following their instructions we managed to catch a bemo to Batuttumonga. We were a bit worried as the GPS on our phone was a bit temperamental and the driver had driven the opposite route we'd hoped to go. After asking a few locals we managed to get on the right track and so set off downhill taking in the views. There were many tonkonans here to, all different colours and sizes, with the beautiful green rice terraces as the backdrop. The villagers as you'd expect were all very friendly with "hello's" coming from every turn.

Although steep in places, the walk was pretty easy as it was all downhill. The scenery was amazing, the village scenes, the rice terraces, the mountain landscapes and the seclusion of it all. This place was idyllic.

On the way down, we spotted a small sign to view baby graves. We'd read about the practice of baby burials here - deceased babies were placed inside a hollowed out area of a tree and the entrance covered up with a small makeshift door. It is thought that the baby will be absorbed into the still growing tree and the baby will continue to grow with it. After a short climb up some stairs we were faced with a rock face with the usual rock burial holes. We tried following a sign to see this tree we'd heard of
Men carrying away carcassMen carrying away carcassMen carrying away carcass

The donated animals are carved and shared out amongst guests
but failed to find it. Apparently the sign was pointing right at it!

As we carried on walking down we ended up meeting 2 Dutch girls and a British girl and chatted briefly with them until we reached our destination in the small village Tikala. From here we hopped onto a Bemo to take us back to Rentepao just as the heavens opened up.

The town of Tanah Toraja is fairly small with a few empty 'karaoke' bars and restaurants but not much else. Having had the opportunity to see most things here in a couple days, plus our visa's were nearly up, we made the decision to head back to Bali to visit the reknown Gilli islands.

Tanah Taraja proved to be just what were looking for in Indonesia though, a bit of untouched culture away from the swarms of tourism. Although the slaughtering did lower our moods a little, we left thinking that we would miss the culture here and actually wished we had more time to explore it. Leaving on our overnight bus to Makassar we spotted the outlines of many tonkonans still visible in the night sky, wondering whether we would see something so intriguing like this again. We sure hope so.


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10th July 2015

Morbid yet fascinating!
What an adventure! I can understand that you got phased by such events, yet it sounds like you had a wonderful adventure here!
14th July 2015

Morbid yet fascinating
It was. This place drew us in, revealed its fascinating but yet morbid culture and left us wanting more. The sacrifices however will also stay with us for a long time, so normal for them but somewhat stomach turning for us.
14th July 2015

Morbid yet fascinating
It was. This place drew us in, revealed its fascinating but yet morbid culture and left us wanting more. The sacrifices however will also stay with us for a long time, so normal for them but somewhat stomach turning for us.
14th July 2015
Mourners attending the funeral

What an adventure... :/
This is such an evocative photo. Beautiful in a sad sort of way...
14th July 2015
Mourners attending the funeral

what an adventure :/
Yeh it sure was. This woman really captured our attention. The man who passed will surely be missed.
26th July 2015

What an experience
Fascination and yet had to watch, wow. As I read this I was wondering would I want to see it and yet it sounds like a real experience. Always helpful when trying to understand another culture. Wow.
27th July 2015

Re: What an experience
We really had no idea what we were in for. It definately was a shock to the system. We're still happy to have been a part of the funeral ceremony though, just a maybe not the slaughter :/ Being in Tanah Toraja was a real eye opener for us re culture/tradition and will be remembered for years to come - the good and the gruesome

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