Lost in the green mountains of the central Indonesian island of Sulawezi lives a people with very particular funeral customs.
The beliefs surrounding the vision of life and death of this ethnic group differ in many ways from our Western traditions. For the Toraja, death is not the end.
Death occurs only on the physical body, it simply represents a stage where the spirit persists and continues its journey elsewhere. In order to accompany the deceased whose souls continue to surround them, Toraja funeral rituals possess many fascinating and disconcerting features.
The funeral, (called Le Tomaté), takes place up to 3 years after the death. These last 7 days and are the most sacred.
During this interval of one to three years, the deceased’s family watches over his body or coffin, most often stored in a room in the family home, patiently waiting for the first day of a long ceremony to arrive.
In some villages in northern Toraja, there is a ritual, the « Ma’néné » or « second funeral ». According to local tradition, the bodies, previously embalmed, came out of their coffins to be maintained by the family. They are cleaned and changed. It is a time for the family to reconnect, to talk to them, feeling joy and sadness in a moment that in some ways can be disconcerting.
The night is starry one evening in August. The Tinnong family gathered in the Sa’dan Matallo mountains north of the town of Rantepao on the island of Sulawesi to celebrate the funeral of Marten, the grandfather. He died at the age of 94, 3 years ago already.
The 8 children of the deceased, about fifty grandchildren and the rest of the family made the special trip, coming from the 4 corners of Indonesia to attend the 7 days of funeral.
Andi Tinnong – a Toraja tells me; we can afford to miss a wedding, a birth, a family event, but never a funeral.
The majority of Toraja have as their religion a clever mix of animism and Christian Protestantism. According to reports, their custom goes back thousands of years, without being able to accurately estimate the date, as traditions are only passed on from generation to generation by oral means.
Marthen’s eldest son, Musa Tinnong, is now the oldest member of the family. He is in charge of the final preparations, the various installations and the installation of the decorations. The funeral protocol according to Toraja traditions is long and meticulous. Everything should be thought out and organized in advance so that the long week of the ceremony can take place without any pitfalls. He has been working with his wife and several of his brothers for 5 weeks now to build the various temporary buildings. A good funeral is one where the whole protocol is respected, it is the respect of the Toraja tradition. Also, each family member is given a role and a task that they take to heart.
Funerals are often the only opportunity to reunite all the members of a family. Contrary to what one might imagine at such a moment, the atmosphere is rather relaxed and friendly. While finishing the preparations, everyone gives each other news and laughs over a glass of balok, the local palm wine.
After a meal of rice and spicy pork fat on a floor strewn with plastic cups, Musa suggested that some people go and see Marten’s coffin, which has been lying in the room on the Tongkonan floor for three years. (The Toraja houses, with their typical architecture in the shape of an inverted canoe). Some do it, others bring out a guitar or a deck of cards, the women stay together to talk.
On the Tongkonan floor, the coffin is placed on the floor in the middle of the room. 3 of his grandsons didn’t eat, preferring to take care of the sarcophagus decorations. The climate is also relaxed, alternating moments of frank laughter and moments more conducive to reflection.
The one who activates himself with a stapler on the fabrics wrapping the coffin speaks to his grandfather in the present, telling him that he must be proud of everything that has been prepared, the number of animals that have so far been brought, etc.
Far from the hushed side of our traditions, the atmosphere here is very free. Everyone has the right to express themselves as they wish and to feel the moment as they feel it. Toraja do not reprimand others, they do not feel the need to do so, and that suits them.
Moreover, Musa told me; there is no reason, my father’s body is dead, but his soul is still alive. His spirit is here, around us and in me now, because I am his son… so no I’m not sad, I just wish everything would go well.
Death among the Toraja does not correspond to a sudden moment, as is often the case in Western cultures. It represents here a slow process where the soul moves beyond it in several stages. A dead person is not really dead, there is always a bond between the living and those who have left. Time has also done its work.
This delay of several years between the time of death and the organization of the funeral is dedicated to mourning, but is also necessary to reunite families, and the funds necessary to organize large festivities. The custom imposes many expenses to be expected for anyone who wishes to organize a funeral worthy of the name.
The symbolism of the rituals and the grandeur of the festivities organized for the occasion is a marker of social differentiation. It allows the family’s place in society to be expressed. The philosophy is simple: If one day you give, at your death you will receive in return. Thus, each family must bring pigs and buffaloes bought at gold prices to local livestock markets in order to be sacrificed. The prestige of families is therefore measured by the quality of the animal, its colour and the size of its horns. A black buffalo (tedong lotong) is traded around €2600, a white buffalo (tedong bulan) is worth around €6500, and the « first class » buffalo (Tedong saleko) is black on the back and white on the rest of its skin. The price of these can go up to 65000 euros.
Musa does not receive a retirement pension. He worked all his life in nickel mines for a Canadian company. The « Tinnong » are not particularly rich, but each family spends a real fortune to organize a beautiful funeral, sometimes at the cost of many daily deprivations.
On the morning of the first day, the mist fell on the Buntu Lobo (the central square where the funeral is held). Mountains and rice fields are lost in the grey of the horizon.
One of the deceased’s sons hastened to tell me that it is good that the weather is not very good, it is a sign that a link with Marthen’s spirit is established.
Despite the very early hour, everyone is happy, a spirit of celebration reigns, the funeral begins. Some guests arrive, settle under the roofs of metal sheets provided for this purpose. Some bring back a pig (Bai), others a buffalo (Tedong). Animals are in a way an attraction, they are admired, cared for… and compared.
Some teenagers in the family are busy with a shard of a bottle cutting their horns. The aggressiveness of the buffalo during the fighting organized during the week will only be reinforced. For the latter, two animals, placed in a rice field, face each other. The crowd gathered around the stage was impatient. The hostilities begin from the first shocks between the horns that resonate in the deaf wind. A certain form of hysteria seizes the spectators who do not want to lose a bit of it. Buffalo fights are especially popular with the youngest, although adults are not to be outdone. In any case, the revenue will not be financial, as bets have only been authorized by the family… for card games, to the great displeasure of some.
In parallel with these strong moments, the animals, force-fed with fresh herbs for the last three days of their lives, are no longer allowed to drink. The quality of the meat will be better, they say.
Almost every day, the family kills several pigs, sometimes a buffalo.
The animals are raised to feed the men and the soul of the deceased, which is why we eat seven times a day… even if it is also because we are hungry, Risto, one of Marthen’s grandsons, tells me with an open smile.
Animal executions are at the heart of the ceremonial ritual and again serve to determine social status and family prestige. The youngest members of the family, armed with a long blade, take care of the killing of the pigs. Once their last breath is taken, they are immediately burned with a torch, emptied and then cut up. Some is offered to guests, the rest is placed to simmer in a Toraja oven, or in « pa’piong » (meat and vegetable preparation placed to marinate in a piece of bamboo) and intended to be served during the most important meals.
Every day of a funeral offers its bloody moment. The buffaloes, until then pampered, are gathered in front of the Tongkonan. Everyone takes a break from their respective activities so as not to miss this moment. One machete in the hand, the other holding the head of the beast in an upright position… Suddenly, the sharp weapon clearly severed the animal’s jugular vein, which then bled to death in a continuous stream in front of a delighted crowd. To sensitive souls, abstain. Once the animal is dead, the same ritual as for pigs is initiated. The « Balulang » are activated (people in charge of cutting the animal). This time, a part of the loot will also be offered to the government authorities as a tax. The skin and a small part of the meat will be sold to tanners and restaurants throughout the country.
As the days go by, the slow and unchanging protocol continues, with more families, neighbours and guests coming to watch the entertainment of this great local meeting. The elders take the microphone. They sing funeral songs to the rhythm of a throbbing gong that gets lost in the shadow of the mountains. They accompany the soul of the deceased to « the south ».
On the day of the most important processions (the fifth day), the family prepares more than usual. Traditional clothes were released for the occasion. Everyone takes care of their appearance. No less than 800 people made the trip. Each family, each guest walks past the altar dressed in black. The atmosphere is calmer this time, more solemn. People sit under the metal arbours and in the different corners provided for this purpose. We have to feed this crowd that came to greet Marten. The words of the priest (To’mina) who officiates with charisma have silenced those who now listen wisely. He recites some sacred texts, and caught in the momentum of his verb, compares the buffaloes (and therefore the families) that have been brought in, inducing the notion of hierarchy.
the following prayer songs (Unnosong) announce the dreaded moment, the « Buffalo Killing ». A dozen buffaloes and about twenty pigs were gathered and sacrificed for the cause. The grass of the Buntu lobo has changed colour, a smell of blood is spreading.
People smile, greet each other, are happy to walk around these places while several small groups of ballulang are active around the animal carcasses.
With a cup of tea or toraja coffee in hand, everyone spends a moment in front of the deceased’s coffin, which has been taken down from the Tongkonan by relatives.
Red and decorated with bright colours, the coffin is moved several times during this week of rites.
During these movements, the heavy box, carried at the end of its brinquebal arm in all directions, shaken in an undisguised collective joy. These are great moments for the family. There is a certain improvisation when the group of carriers fails to place the coffin on the office on the balcony. The whole group, coming down in unison with the precious one, pivots on itself, some tripping over the body of a buffalo sacrificed earlier before climbing the bamboo ladder. Despite these few setbacks, the spirit of camaraderie prevails in these funeral moments. It will make more of a joke to be told. The atmosphere remains serious and light at the same time. The coffin will be moved four times during its week of ceremony in order to respect Toraja customs.
The last day is the day of the big departure. Marthen will join his wife and some of his missing family members who are buried in the « Patané » (the family vault) a few kilometres away. The wealthier Toraja families deposit their deaths in a « Mata », a hole dug in the rock.
After a period of ritual prayer, the coffin, placed on a decorated solid wooden structure, will leave its premises. Sadness and tears appear on the faces of some of the women in the family, the children play next door, an uncle does one last selfie. The moment offers a certain strangeness that is both peaceful and intense, always respectful.
The order is given, the emotion becomes stronger. It can be seen in the looks, the behaviours. The little children once again grasp their grandfather’s heavy carriage with pride, take one last tour of the central square before loading it onto a bamboo structure decorated with drapery. It takes no less than 30 people to carry the impressive structure, which will then be loaded onto a truck trailer. The procession starts all screaming sirens. Some of the deceased’s grandchildren got into the truck to hold the tomb in place during transport. Behind, an endless and priority line of cars and scooters with roaring engines seized the road.
When they arrived at the « Patané », the men took the coffin one last time for his « last physical journey ». The vault is open. The family first conducts an inspection of the premises. We clean the pictures of the deceased, we remove the dirt that has accumulated over time. Ten people are buried here. Marthen’s coffin hardly passes through the small door of the vault. It is delicately stacked on top of another, where there is room. Musa puts the photos back in place, the children put bottles of water on the ground so that the deceased do not lack for anything. it is the moment of a last greeting, not a farewell.
In some parts of the Tana Toraja, particularly in the localities of Lalikan and Pangala, another tradition persists, that of the « Ma’néné », or « second funerals », although not all Toraja practice it.
Those who perpetuate there, scent the bodies once death has occurred using formaldehyde products. The bodies do not decompose, they are mummified and thus preserved.
The state of the corpse also indicates part of its level of prosperity beyond… and that of the living who are attached to it.
During July and only during the months of July, families who practice this ancient custom perform a strange ritual. They take the bodies of the coffins of their dearly departed loved ones out of the « patané » to maintain them at regular intervals, every one to three years according to local customs. For the Toraja, it is time to renew the fundamental bond that unites each member of a family, whether dead or alive.
Once opened, the crypt is first maintained, the women sweep the broom, the men remove the cobwebs that line the walls and corners. Outside, a few curious neighbours crowded in front of the entrance with a smartphone in their hands to make sure they didn’t miss anything on the stage.
Two of the nine coffins that lie in the « Patané » came out during the day there.
It is a rare moment, the emotion is strong and again differs between family members. When the covers are opened, some feel a certain excitement, a form of joy at the idea of seeing a brother or son again, while others, in tears, still feel the weight of the sadness and the disappearance of a loved one.
Many men take care to gently remove the bodies from their eternal beds before laying them down, lying on the floor. Protective glove in hand, a man removes the shroud that wraps around the lifeless body. A face appears. It was the story of a 6-year-old child who died of an illness that killed him two years earlier. This is the first time the family has seen him since his funeral.
His younger siblings seem impassive and rather curious in the face of a moved mother and a father who is happy to see his son again.
Once the first few minutes are spent observing and cleaning the face of the othernesses that the trials of time bring, the atmosphere becomes more familiar, the voices become stronger, a kind of normality towards this singular event is established.
The stiff body of the little « Luther » is put upright to get some air. The family organizes a photo session to keep a souvenir that will then be displayed on a piece of furniture in the living room.
The father takes off his child’s dirty clothes and talks to him, normally. « Here, my child, I brought you your favorite hat, the batman’s. You remember your bike, it’s still there, you know? Wait, don’t move, I’ll put your yellow shirt on. The image is touching and disturbing. The scene is disturbing, but the nobility and simplicity of the behaviours invite understanding.
The family places Luther in front of the splendid landscape dominated by the rice fields, which he used to frequent as a child. It is time for contemplation.
The ritual lasts like this for an hour before it is wrapped again in its shroud, the cap still screwed on its head, and placed back in the family vault.
Another coffin is open, but the decomposition of the body of the man who died at the age of 36 is too advanced to be lifted. « It’s a shame, » said one of his brothers, « he liked to walk around, it would have made him happy. I would have given him cigarettes, but we don’t smoke lying down. Never mind, maybe next time. » Man thinks that his body may regenerate sufficiently before the next « Ma’néné ».
The Toraja hope that these thousand-year-old beliefs will continue in the future. The younger generations do not seem to want to abandon rituals that already make them part of themselves.
They are even reluctant to accept the concept of a quick burial, a sudden and painful mourning. The idea of giving time time and making the acceptance process progressive is not meaningless.
On the one hand, it allows them to subscribe and gently adhere to the idea of the departure of a loved one, to make this phase of « death » intelligible, or at least more acceptable. It perpetuates the bond that always unites minds. It makes the notion of distance progressive, and allows the souls of chimneys in and beyond the physical universe, in accordance with their « Toraja » beliefs.