Asia Pacific

Journey to the afterlife: Indonesia's Toraja live among the dead


Martha Kande’s family lived with her graying, shriveled corpse at their home in Indonesia for seven months as they prepared an elaborate funeral that is central to the Toraja people’s centuries-old death rituals.

“We keep the body in a coffin at home,” said Meyske Latuihamallo, the 81-year-old woman’s granddaughter. “But it’s kept open before they are buried because we see them as sick, so they are brought food and drink every day.”

Torajans — an ethnic group that numbers a million people on Sulawesi island — have few qualms when it comes to talking with an embalmed corpse, dressing it up, brushing its hair or even taking pictures with it.

Traditionally the embalming process involved sour vinegar and tea leaves, but these days families usually inject a formaldehyde solution into the corpse.

“After a week, there’s no odor anymore,” said tourist guide Lisa Saba Palloan.

It may seem ghoulish to live side by side with an embalmed body for months — or even years — before paying homage in a ritualistic display of blood and guts.

But the Toraja believe that a person is only dead — and their soul freed — after an elaborate funeral known as “Rambu Solo.”

As Kande’s family prepared her mummified body for the afterlife, wild boars howled and blood poured from a sacrificial buffalo’s throat. Following the five-day ceremony, the octogenarian was placed in one of the many burial caves scattered around the mountainous region, where skeletal remains are arranged by social hierarchy.

They sit alongside wooden dolls in traditional clothing, representing deceased nobility. Some bodies are kept in coffins that hang from steep cliffs, owing to limited space.

“These are the customs of our ancestors,” said Kande’s 72-year-old nephew Johanes Singkali. “We maintain them to preserve these traditions and keep them sacred from outside influences.”

Although most Torajans are Christian — a product of Dutch colonialism — they have held on to earlier traditions rooted in animistic beliefs.

The more elaborate a funeral, the more likely the person’s spirit will reach the level of the gods. But it comes at a cost.

As many as 100 buffalo could be slaughtered for a noble person, though as few as eight will suffice for a middle-class Torajan.

Funerals can set a family back up to 2 billion rupiah ($133,000) — an extravagant amount in a country where more than half the population live on less than $5.50 a day, according to the World Bank.

“We used to be animists, so we buried people with boars and buffaloes to offer the spirits on the way to the afterlife,” Singkali said.

“It costs a lot and there are a lot of preparations while all the relatives living outside Toraja must come too.”

Hundreds gathered in La’Bo village for Kande’s spiritual send-off, along with dozens of picture-snapping tourists.

Her body was put into a red coffin — in the form of a traditional, boat-shaped house — which was then placed in front of her home.

Relatives clad in black dragged dozens of pigs into the center of the village for slaughter as family members danced.

At midday, a prized buffalo was led out onto a blue tarpaulin where its throat was slit — confirming the woman’s death — and the carcass was butchered for a big dinner to follow.

Finally Kande’s coffin was carried around the neighborhood in a symbolic goodbye.

It is not for the squeamish, but American visitor Ellie Eshleman took a philosophical view. “I am passionate about death,” the 29-year-old said. “I would like to help restore it to its spiritual place in the Western world. So I came here to see their death customs and how it can be a time of celebration.”

The Indonesian government is trying to promote Torajan death rituals as part of ambitious plans to boost tourism across the sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago.

While the Toraja region draws tens of thousands of tourists annually, that is a fraction of the millions who descend on Bali.

Increasing Toraja tourism faces several hurdles, although opposition from locals does not appear to be among them.

Rather, poor infrastructure and the absence of a major airport in the highland region make travel difficult.

Furthermore, it is difficult to plan a trip to see a Rambu Solo ceremony because dates can change as families struggle to save enough money for one.

But many visitors are still willing to take a chance and drive for hours from the nearest major airport to see one of the world’s most unique funeral rites.

“Toraja is a piece of heaven on earth,” said Harli Patriatno, North Toraja’s head of culture and tourism. “Its natural beauty combined with the Toraja people’s spiritualism and funeral rites is extraordinary.”