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Learn About The Unique Rituals Of The Toraja From Indonesia

Learn about the unique death rituals of the Toraja and why they’re not that different from our own.
Traditional Torajan Wooden Effigies with outstretched handsGetty

So who are the Toraja? Well, they’re an ethnic group from the Tanah Toraja and Toraja Utara regencies in Sulawesi, Indonesia. They are particularly famous for their extensive death ceremonies which tend to be a lot different from our own rituals and even other Indonesian death rituals. For Toraja, respecting and celebrating the dead don’t just mean giving them a proper burial – it also means living with them, long after their deaths and even past their funerals.

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The Torajan Death Ceremony

Even when compared to the rest of Indonesian culture, Torajans are very unique. In fact, in some sense, Torajan death rituals never end. Though the rituals do culminate in a funeral, they begin long before the big event and continue long after as well.

Living With The Dead

When a loved one passes on, their families don’t immediately prepare them for burial or cremation. Instead, the body is embalmed and kept in the family home and taken care of as if they were still alive. During this stage of the ceremony, Torajans don’t even refer to their loved ones as dead but as makula, meaning one who is just sick. 

Make no mistake though – this isn’t done out of any form of denial but is rather a preparation for the dead’s eventual burial. Funerals in Torajan culture aren’t just family events but grand celebrations of the dead’s life that can cost thousands of dollars to prepare for. And, while these grand celebrations used to be reserved for the highest members of society, most modern Torajan families give their loved ones’ lavish funerals.

That being said, as funerals are expected to be as grand as the families can make them, it can take quite a long time for a funeral to be arranged. Sometimes, it could even take months or years depending on the family’s circumstances. So until then, the family treats the deceased like any other family member as they speak with them, eat with them, and even meet guests with them. 

Of course, the family members don’t actually feed the deceased or expect them to respond. But they continue to perform these actions out of respect and remembrance for their loved ones. 

The Big Event

Once the family has prepared everything they need for the funeral, the Rambu Solo ritual can begin and the makula can finally be laid to rest.

A Toraja village carrying a coffin during ritual
(Credit: Getty)

During the funeral (which can last several days) the family and their guests celebrate the life of the deceased while also performing rituals that help prepare them for the afterlife. 

One of these rituals is the sacrifice of dozens of buffaloes and pigs, which are believed to help the deceased with their journey toward Puya, the realm where souls rest. As one of the most important parts of the funeral, the family spends hundreds of millions of rupiah (over $AUD 10,000) on these animals as the ritual requires the sacrifice of anywhere between six to over a hundred depending on the deceased’s social status. The meat from the sacrificed animals is later used in a feast.

Eventually, though, the funeral ends with the burial of the body. However, unlike more common death rituals, bodies aren’t buried, but instead, caves are dug out of a cliffside to avoid defiling the purity of the life-giving land. The cliffside graves are then marked with tau tau, effigies that watch over the remains of the deceased. These often resemble the deceased themselves, with many of them being dressed in the deceased’s favourite outfits.

Traditional Torajan Wooden Effigies with outstretched hands
(Credit: Getty)

For most cultures, the burial of the body marks the end of the death ceremony. But, for Torajans, it’s only the beginning of a life-long ritual.

The Ma’nene Festival

Every three years, a reunion of sorts takes place at the end of August as families take the preserved bodies of the deceased out of their graves for the Ma’nene Festival or the Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses. 

During this festival, the families get to be with their loved ones once more. Bodies are taken out of their coffins, cleaned up and dressed in their favourite outfits, and later brought back to their villages to spend time with family and friends. The deceased are even given some of their favourite treats from when they were alive, be those snacks or cigarettes. Later, once all the festivities are done, the dead are laid back in their places of rest.

Mummies getting a change of clothing during a traditional Ma-nene Ritual in Indonesia
(Credit: Sijori Images / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

As morbid as this may all sound though, the Ma’nene festival is a time of joy. After all, it’s a chance for families to spend time with their loved ones long after they’ve passed. And, as strange as it may seem to most of us, it’s a beautiful display of familial love and affection. 

Not That Different After All

At this point, you might be wondering why in the world the Torajans go this far in their death rituals. Well, try looking at it like this: The reasons why they perform all these rituals aren’t too different from the reasons why we perform our own rituals.

On some level, Torajans perform these death rituals to keep traditions alive. After all, even though most Torajans practice Christianity today, it’s clear that the rituals and practices of Aluk To Dolo – their indigenous religion – are still ingrained in their culture. This isn’t too surprising, considering that carbon dating evidence has shown that the religion has been practised since as early as ninth century AD.

These rituals are also an integral part of their cultural grieving process. For a lot of us, we grieve by giving our loved ones a proper burial and taking some time off work to truly come to terms with our emotions. For them, they grieve by performing these rituals and ensuring that their loved ones have a pleasant afterlife. At the end of the day, it’s just another way to deal with death.

Conclusion

As macabre as their death rituals sound, the practices of the Toraja in Indonesia are far from anything you’ve seen in The Walking Dead. While their rituals involve more corpse interaction than most of us are comfortable with, the rituals are still just ways to express grief at the end of the day.

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