The Best Place on Earth to Die
In Tana Toraja, people keep their dead relatives' corpses in their homes for years.
Photo: Paul Koudounaris
It's funeral season in the Indonesian regency of Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, where U-shaped roofs decorate the tongkonan houses. They soar heavenward, like the prows of ships, toward the ancestral spirits.
"You mustn't be afraid of the dead," my guide Agustinus Galugu reassures me. "The soul rises. The body is just clothing."
I carry my bags inside the home of Indo Lai, the noblewoman I've traveled 10,000 miles to meet.
Of course, she's dead.
My host's three-year-old corpse reclines fully dressed on a wooden bed, with a bowl of rice beside her embalmed hand. I let out an involuntary, bloodcurdling scream, the kind of scream you hear in horror films.
The corpse is neither blue, nor white, nor decayed. She doesn't smell. She is glossy and green, embalmed with tea and formalin. She's encircled by her favorite objects: a beaded bag (an ode to her weaving hobby), a carved wooden board with tadpoles (a nod to her nine children), a mystical kris blade (a memento from her collection), and dried vanilla (a token for time spent playing in vanilla fields nearby). She was only 73 when she died, but now appears a thousand years old.
"Thank Indo Lai for being a gracious host," Mr. Galugu tells me.
"Thank you," I say, facing the corpse.
"Tabek motok komi kumande," Mr. Galugu says to the lifeless body, in indigenous tongue, offering her a glass of water. "Please wake for dinner."
Thankfully, she doesn't.
I am no stranger to death. Both my parents died when I was young and I made rituals of my own that prevent me from letting them completely go; to this day, I carry a box of my father's ashes with me. I never travel anywhere without their photos.
I have a strong fear of death. Scary movies frighten me. I was scared to come here. But I'm working on a book about my family and decided that writing it meant I'd need to first confront my fear of death by staring it directly in the face.
In Toraja, it's customary to feed one's deceased relative every day, and to keep the embalmed corpse tucked cozily inside one's bedroom—sometimes up to ten years after death. Corpses are treated as if "sick" or "sleeping"—not dead—until the family can afford a proper funeral.
To a Westerner, this degree of intimacy with the dead may seem perverse or taboo, but Paul Koudounaris, who studied Torajan burial practices in his book Momento Mori tells me, "If you look cross-culturally and historically, there are plenty of examples of similar or related practices… the way we deal with the dead in the modern West, ghettoizing them or treating them as an abject group, turns out to be historically a lot more eccentric than the way the dead are treated in Tana Toraja."
I am hoping this trip will show me how some cultures interact, celebrate, and live with death in a way that challenges the fear Westerners often associate with the presence of the corpse.
Indo Lai's relatives get home and greet her. It's crowded. Mr. Galugu leaves. Geckos scale the walls. The fan whirls. I lie down; Indo Lai's body is in the adjacent room. I snap my eyes shut and tell myself I'll at least stay the night.
I imagine how my peers would've reacted had I decided to keep my father's years-old corpse in our Manhattan apartment, embalmed and snug beneath his comforter. I'd feed him, speak to him, and bathe him daily. Back home, I would've been institutionalized. And unlike Torajans, we New Yorkers don't even seem to have the time to extensively cater to our living relatives, much less the dead ones.
On the first day of Indo Lai's funeral, throngs of mourners gather on an enormous ceremonial field in a procession led by female relatives ornamented in bright beads, who smile, and collectively wave one long red sash over their heads.
Intoxicated men, merry from balok, absinthe-like palm wine, jostle through the crowd, hoisting Indo Lai's coffin while dancing. Flutes chime. Drums reverberate. Barefoot men form a circle and dance the funeral waltz. Slowly, the monotonous chanting decelerates.
Ninety-seven water buffaloes and sixty-one pigs will be sacrificed in Indo Lai's honor in the death feast, known as Rambu Solo, which spans six days.
The wealthier and higher the social status of a Torajan, the more elaborate the funeral. The number of animals butchered is thought to determine the speed at which the soul will travel from village to afterlife. At least 24 buffaloes are slaughtered for noble kin.
These death ceremonies cost a fortune, up to $500,000, depending on caste. Toraja may not be the world's most expensive place to live, but it's certainly one of the most expensive places to die.
"I've already bought my burial clothes," Rizal, Indo Lai's twenty-something-year-old grandson tells me. "We Torajans live to die. We have to save a lot of money. Not for retirement. For death."
I find Indo Lai's daughter Ibu Berta to give her betel nuts, a carton of cigarettes, and a small wad of cash—customary gifts. I ask her how she's doing, if she's sad.
Ibu Berta says, "I'm too busy to be sad. Tomorrow I'll cry for the first time when the buffaloes are killed. I'll cry when Mama actually dies."
The tears pooled in her eyes reveal to me that she knows her mother is already dead, but I understand. It took me two years to cry after my mother and, later, my father, died. Denial is an easy pill to swallow, but it has cruel side effects. Ibu Berta and I are two strangers, intimate like closed journals, both descendants of Indonesian nobility and bound by sorrow.
Death here, among its inhabitants, is not macabre. It's vibrant: it does not conjure up images of weeping black-clad mourners hidden beneath umbrellas and sunglasses. By night, scores of visitors pay homage. Cartons of kretek clove cigarettes and wild scurrying animals encircle the casket outside.
The next afternoon, hundreds of mourners surround a man with a two-inch pinky nail. He raises a machete to the first buffalo's throat, ready to sacrifice, marking Indo Lai's official death. This ritual, at the heart of Toraja's belief Aluk To Dolo, "The Way of the Ancestors," ensures the dead a fulfilling afterlife.
Christianity is Toraja's most prevalent religion, but, reflective of Indonesia's "Intricate Quilt of Faiths," multiple religions and views about the dead coexist with an ancient tradition of animism. The buffalo—a cult symbol of success, status, and fertility—snorts and squirms. But soon, it is food, butchered and roasted before us, glazed with exotic spice.
Young boys catch the spurting blood in bamboo shoots and drink it. The crowd cheers. My stomach turns. The death feast is full of giddy carnage. The ceremonious slaughter yields laughter and festivity. Buffalo blood splashes on my lip; it tastes metallic. Seven buffaloes down. Four more days of celebration and 90 more buffaloes to go until Indo Lai's family will have appeased God and society, until her spirit will rise to Puya, land of souls.
On the last day of Indo Lai's funeral, we parade her coffin, filled with beloved possessions for the afterlife, around the village. One woman faints. Half a dozen other relatives wail in grief, as if Indo Lai's death is only hitting them now, despite the fact that she'd taken her last breath three years ago.
We Westerners tend to view death as sudden and abrupt, but here, I wonder: Is it in fact healthier to accept, interact with, and love the corpse? My mind flashes to my father's deathbed at Mount Sinai Hospital. Aunt Mary paid him tribute by making him a death mask after he passed, and videotaped the process. I could've spent time with my father's corpse, studied its contours, but—at the time—the idea of his body terrified me.
"I won't be able to talk to her anymore," says Ibu Berta, weeping. "She's leaving home." We watch as Indo Lai's casket is raised to a grave carved out of a cliff a few hundred feet above.
Each town has its own burial site, where, after the funeral, bodies are stacked haphazardly in hanging graves or coffins. Some caskets are so old that they've split open, leaving piles of human skulls, sticks, stones and broken bones scattered high up and deep inside damp caves. Skeletons are buried in the surrounding mountains and cliffs. Babies are entombed in trees.
Four more days of celebration and 90 more buffaloes to go until Indo Lai's family will have appeased God and society, until her spirit will rise to Puya, land of soul
A tau tau sculpture—a realistic replica of Indo Lai's face and body, wearing a miniature version of her favorite ikat dress—is positioned in the cave to watch over the village.
"This won't be the last they'll see of her," Mr. Galugu explains to me. "As a sign of respect, the family will exhume Indo Lai's corpse every few years and bathe her in the river. It's called Ma'Nane." Each August, the walking dead are seen roaming Toraja's autonomous villages. Here, the dead don't rest in peace.
Though this practice isn't mandatory, family members who long to see their deceased relatives participate in the ceremonial cleansing. Indo Lai's family will freshen her up by dressing her in a fancy new outfit. She'll be taken to the place she died and her corpse will be walked through her hometown, zombie-like. Corpses that aren't well preserved, ones with black goopy skin falling off the body will be cradled and nurtured by loved ones; love is blind when it comes to the ugliness of death in Toraja.
In isolated animist villages such as Mamasa, shamans can allegedly temporarily resurrect the dead through black magic and make them walk without assistance. The walking corpses are said to be nonresponsive and expressionless, only able to walk robotically toward their hometowns.
"Do you believe they can walk without assistance?" I ask Mr. Galugu.
He says, "I don't believe corpses can walk on their own—without supported magic."
Would I unearth my mother's skeleton to spend a few extra moments with her? I had the strangely cathartic privilege of bearing witness to the process of my father's death. But it was different with my mother. I don't know exactly how Mama died, what her last words were, or how her face looked. I just heard her screams. I never said goodbye. I didn't even go to her funeral. No one even told me she was dead. (Relatives feared that if my post-coma father found out, the respirator would no longer suffice and he'd die.) I wonder, would seeing Mama one more time provide me solace, maybe heal me? Should I fly to her grave in Yogjakarta to hug her bones just one more time?
Then I think how I'd want my last images of my mother to remain intact and sacred. Mama's purple orchid is pinned behind her left ear. She is cradling me. The day is young and already she's wearing lipstick and a red silk dress. Her open-mouthed smile—almost a laugh—widens her nose. The delicate rain that had been pattering on the car's hood suddenly veers into a thunderstorm, whitening the tropical landscape. Fog smears across glass. Mama traces her finger and draws three shapes, our family, in stick figures. We fall asleep holding hands.
This memory loops in my mind. But in my imagination, our car doesn't crash and we reach our destination. In these brief but vivid moments, we are together and it's realer than real. I relive it again and again and again and like that, we're spending time. Turns out, death is never really the end.
All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along here.
- tana toraja
- aluk to dolo
- Rambu Solo
- hanging graves
- the real walking dead