In the Province of South Sulawesi lies the Indonesian cultural hub of Tana Toraja. Clinging onto tradition for hundreds of years, the country’s culture is at its most prominent in this region. With a boom in tourism sweeping Indonesia, particularly the island of Bali, it seems surprising (and such a shame) that Sulawesi is still an uncommon destination on the backpacker trail. Having said that, although these underdeveloped areas of the world benefit economically from tourism, it can often change the dynamic of a place and they can suffer a loss of identity. So maybe it’s a bonus that the Torajan people haven’t been inundated with tourists (yet), but after our visit to the village of Rantepao in May this year (2016), I couldn’t help but feel as though everyone should pass through this magical village just once in their lives and experience a day in the life of a Torajan resident.
After watching numerous documentaries about the way in which Torajans celebrate life and death, we made it one of our aims on our trip to Southeast Asia to reach Sulawesi before flying back to the UK. And boy are we glad we did…
Although it may seem quite sinister to take 3 flights, 2 night buses, and a truck ride up into the mountains to attend a funeral for someone we have never even met, the lessons I learnt from the ceremony, and more importantly the people, are something I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Torajans spend their entire lives working hard to save for their own funerals, spending the little money they need to on food, water, and basic survival, and putting the rest of it to one side for their family to celebrate once they have passed away. Ironically, at least 6 months will pass once someone has died before anyone begins to plan their funeral, as they still consider the body to be a part of the family. They dress the corpse each day, eat at the dinner table together, talk extensively to the deceased and play games as if their soul hasn’t left the body. It is only when the body starts to decay that the family feel they are ready to let go.
Having mourned sufficiently for their loved one since their passing, by the time of the funeral, all of the village come together to celebrate their life and share the fond memories they have. Granted this is easier said than done: I have always tried to take this mental approach to a funeral, otherwise the irony that every single person who has loved and cared for someone have finally come together when that person is no longer alive can be too much to handle.
These celebrations of life can last as long as 6 days and the whole community will be put on pause for this time. The corpse is often placed in a beautifully decorated wooden coffin and displayed high up on a structure for all to see. Throughout the 6 days, various rituals will take place including the sacrifice or donation of cattle, the reading of Christan verses and hymns, and most importantly the feasts! The villagers have always welcomed outsiders including neighbouring towns, people of different religions, and tourists to experience the funerals with open arms.
We attended the funeral of a popular man, father, and grandfather who had passed away at the age of 90 – a respectable age to reach in relation to the life expectancy in Indoneisa. It was the 6th and final day of the funeral, which included the sacrifice of 6 buffalos, who were killed, skinned, and chopped up into “party bags” for the guests to enjoy over the next couple of weeks. Although pretty gruesome, it was fascinating to see that not even the childrens’ stomachs turned at the sight. The skin of the buffalos were then dried out in the sun, ready to sell to the markets for bags, shoes, and goodness knows what else.
What was most eye-opening for me was when we gave our donation to one of the sons, we were invited to sit with them and eat. I have never been treated so well and fussed so much by people who firstly have never met me before, and secondly have much less to offer than myself. They were so overjoyed that we had travelled to join them, and insisted that we ate and drank as much as we wanted to before anyone else reached for a plate. It just goes to show that kindness costs nothing and that the key to happiness is acceptance. I will forever hold with me the expresions on their faces, so content just to be in the company of good people and to take pleasure from giving and sharing with strangers.
Once the celebrations are over, the body is then taken in a truck up to the hills and buried in a rock that is allocated to their family and will often become a shrine to multiple family members. That way, they are surrounded by love, family, and friends, no only throughout their life, but in the afterlife too.