Behind the Rise of Funeral Tourism on the Island of Sulawesi

Traditional funerals often involve grilling pigs with flamethrowers and sacrificing buffaloes by the dozen. Subsequently they've started charging tourists to watch.

by Nat Kassel
Apr 4 2016, 12:00am

Local women at a Sulawesi funeral. All images by author

The funeral is a half hour motorbike ride into the hills beyond the town of Rantepao, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. We park next to some rice paddies and follow our guide down a muddy road. I'm not sure it's ethical for us to have paid to come here, but I guess we'll find out. For about $30 each, my girlfriend and I have become "funeral tourists."

Torajans are the indigenous people of south Sulawesi, and they are renowned for their burial rites, which are some of the most complex in the world. Their traditions include such rites as filling trees with dead babies; building life-size effigies of the deceased; pulling bodies out of coffins every five years to change their clothes; and leaving dead family members in their homes and treating them as "sick" until they can afford to throw them a proper funeral, which can sometimes be up to two years later.

This is the reason Sulawesi locals can charge money for tourists to check out their funerals—their funerals are very interesting. Our guide Erwin is leading us into our first Torajan death ceremony, replete with ritual animal slaughter, rice wine, and scores of local guests—some somber, others smiling.

Locals carry a pig for the funeral feast

When I raise my concerns about the commodification of death, Erwin assures me that having lots of guests at a funeral is considered an honor. "A lot of local people who don't know the family come to the funeral anyway," Erwin tells us.

A dead pig is on the ground, blood leaking from its nose and mouth, while three men, equipped with what seem to be flamethrowers, sear the animal for several minutes. When they roll the pig over, its body has gone into rigor mortis and its hair has burnt away. Erwin is giving us facts and explanations, but we're too intrigued and too horrified to listen. Instead, I concentrate on the dull hum of the flamethrowers.

I wasn't sure if these were real flame throwers, but then throwing flames seemed to be all they did.

"These pigs are gifts from people who are here to attend the funeral," I overhear Erwin say to my girlfriend as the men exchange their flamethrowers for machetes and begin creating a pile of blood, flesh, and bones. The guts are thrown to a couple of lurking dogs. Three other pigs, very much alive, are tethered by all four legs to lengths of bamboo, helplessly awaiting their turn. They are visibly trembling, possibly aware of what is about to happen.

Killing animals is a central aspect of any Torajan funeral, and buffaloes are the most sacred and important. One funeral guest describes the buffalo as the "entry ticket" to the afterlife. The sacrificed animals are believed to provide the exiting soul with transport, milk, and meat in heaven. According to Erwin, the lower class Torajans can sacrifice up to three buffaloes at their funerals, the middle class from six to 12, and the highest class will have at least 24. At some funerals, over a hundred buffaloes are sacrificed over the course of a few days.

A Torajan man holding a flamethrower

We've been told the extravagance of these funerals means it's important to bring gifts. One local man says his family saved for five years for a relative's funeral. And while this may seem quite excessive, funerals feed a whole village, and it's customary for everybody to take a portion of meat home. On a practical level, it's a way of redistributing food to those who need it. In a land without state supported welfare, I guess it serves a valid purpose.

Locals hack up the meat with machetes

Erwin is unperturbed by the death and butchery of the pigs and seems eager that we explore the rest of the funeral and mingle. The guests are sitting inside bamboo huts drinking locally grown coffee, tea, and homemade palm wine. In the center of the festivities is a tongkonan (a traditional Torajan house), which is occupied by the deceased.

We are offered seats in a small bamboo terrace and introduced to the dead man's cousin. As instructed, we thank him for having us—a badly pronounced attempt at the native tongue—and hand over the carton of cigarettes we brought as a funeral gift.

Me hacking up meat with a machete

Another pig is emitting its last blood-curdling squeals as a plate of rice- and bamboo-smoked pork is placed in front of us. My girlfriend pleads vegetarian, but they insist we try the meat. We oblige, both feeling a bit confronted, but silently acknowledging that it seems the respectful thing to do.

The deceased's body, held in the tongkonan

After lunch, we enter the tongkonan in which the deceased has been placed. The body is wrapped in bright-red fabric. He didn't have much of a family, we're told, but another of his cousins, an elderly lady, is sitting at the foot of his resting place. She is weeping quietly.

"They wrap him up like an Egyptian mummy," says Erwin. "Just like they did to Jesus before they put him in the cave." Erwin goes on to explain that many of the Torajan rites are a hybrid of animism and Christianity. Before the Dutch colonized Indonesia, bringing their religion with them, Torajans practiced animism—believing all entities have souls, even non-human entities.

I'm scribbling this down in my notebook as the elderly woman points at me and asks Erwin a question. She wants to know why a couple of foreigners are crashing her cousin's funeral. He explains that we are learning about Torajan culture, to which she brightens momentarily.

"Thank you for coming and learning about my culture," she says in her dialect. Erwin is positively beaming as he translates this to us, smiling. We smile and thank her back, relieved that she doesn't think we're intruding, while still aware that we kind of are.

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