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A young Torajan smokes with his uncle Songa, who passed away more than 40 years ago when he was 70.  Photo by Claudio Sieber
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Love Beyond Death: Toraja's Unique Funeral Rites

This Indonesian ethnic group cares for the dead like they would living relatives, offering them food, clothing, water and cigarettes.
February 14, 2019, 12:00pm

While for most of us, talking about death is considered a taboo, for the Torajans inhabiting the picturesque mountain setting in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, it’s a lifelong task – since death doesn’t mean a final farewell. Torajans learn from a very young age to bear death and to accept it as part of life. When someone dies, Torajans treat their beloved relatives as if they were sick (Toma Kula). Food, water, even cigarettes are offered to a Toma Kula on a daily basis because they believe its spirit remains near the body and craves for ongoing care.

The lifeless body is kept and cared for in the tongkonan or the traditional Torajan house. The dead bodies remain there for several months, in some cases even decades, until the clan can afford a proper funeral and can eventually schedule the ceremony. In the meantime, dried plants are used to neutralize the odor of the formalin.

The last breath of a sacrificial water buffalo during funeral processions known as Rambu Solo marks the official death of a “sick person.” Only then will the soul of the deceased be finally raised to Puya, or the Torajan version for Heaven. The more buffalos are sacrificed, the wealthier the family and the faster a soul will find its way to Puya. There, it will be with God and live a fulfilling afterlife. Without buffalo sacrifices, the soul won’t find its way. According to Aluk To Dolo – the ancestral belief of the Torajans – 24 is the suggested number of sacrificial buffalos for most castes, although the exact number will be suggested by the local chief and then discussed with the family. Some guests will bring additional buffalos as a gift. It’s an unwritten law in Torajan culture for the family to pay back a buffalo in the same price range at the next funeral.

Toraja Funeral

Relatives visit Nene' Tiku who passed away 3 days earlier at the age of 106. Photo by Claudio Sieber

The funeral procession of a low caste family can easily cost around $50,000, but for higher castes, a total bill can total roughly $250,000 to $500,000. Close relatives of the departed are expected to contribute at least one expensive sacrificial buffalo, which could cost anywhere between $10,000 up to $40,000 on the livestock market. The price depends on the exclusivity of the skin and its design, the length of the horns and the color of the buffalo's eyes. A grand Torajan funeral is measured in the number of buffalos: this is why funerals may take a long time.

The funeral ceremony can last about 3-5 days, and concludes with the deceased finally buried in a mausoleum or stone graves. But it doesn’t end there. The clan gathers every one to three years for the ritual known as Ma’nene, which translates to "care for ancestors." During this time, the dead will be taken out of their graves again, cleaned, and given new clothes – before being returned to their graves tombs. Relatives come from far away to celebrate this annual get-together where they meet, enjoy a feast, share stories, and honor their loved ones.

Check out these photos below of Toraja's unique funeral rites:

Toraja funeral

Ribka Tanduk Langi died 2 month ago at the age of 53 because of liver failure. Her second of eight sons, Yari, says they will schedule the funeral next year. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Toraja funeral

Preserving the Toma Kula'. Risvan Patale can't let go of his dead mother Esther Paseru who passed away 3 days ago because of a heart attack. In contrast to Western norms, Torajans treat their beloved relatives as if they were sick rather than dead. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Toraja funeral

Clara holds her dead sister Arel, who died when she was 6 years old. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Toraja funeral

Torajans have unique funeral rites that include dressing and caring for their beloved dead relatives. Photo by Claudio Sieber.

Funeral Toraja

This Rambu Solo funeral ceremony sees 800 guests attending the five-day event. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Toraja funeral

The more buffalos sacrificed, the wealthier the family and the faster a soul will find its way to Puya or heaven. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Toraja funeral

During Rambu Solo, the family prepares the body for burial. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Toraja funeral

After a 4-day funeral, the mourners are parading the coffin from the temporary stadium to the mausoleum. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Toraja funeral

The Ma'Nene ritual starts by cleaning the dead body and changing clothes before having a sunbath. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Toraja funeral

Four cousins see their dead relative who passed away 10 years ago because of sickness. Back then, there were no proper roads in the mountainous area of Toraja, so it was too late to bring the 6-month-old baby to the hospital for a checkup. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Toraja funeral

After the cleaning ritual of Ma'Nene, relatives honor their deceased by giving them back their favorite gadgets like glasses or purses. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Toraja funeral

Ma'Nene is always a good occasion for younger relatives to meet their ancestors for the first time - and of course, to take some selfies with them. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Toraja funeral

The colorful coffins are taken out of the grave for the Ma'Nene ritual, then returned afterwards. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Toraja funeral

Rice cultivation is essential in Toraja. A tongkonan or traditional ancestral house sits in the distance and boasts a distinguishing boat-shaped and oversized saddleback roof. Photo by Claudio Sieber