It took me longer than I thought to get into Rantepao, the capital city of Tana Toraja that is located in the Island of Sulawesi—one of the islands in Indonesia—even though I was just coming from Makassar in the south of the island. Toraja is an ethnic group from the mountains of the Island of Sulawesi. They got their name from the city itself and that is how the majority group of the island, Bugis called them. They are approximately one million people although only half reside in the region.
Toraja country, hidden in the mountains, remained oblivious to the outside world until barely a century ago. The Netherlands controlled the Indonesian trade from 1602, but the first Dutch missionaries did not reach these lands until the beginning of the 20th century.
What’s intriguing is the death ritual of this unique land. For centuries, they have buried people on the ground inside vertical stonewalls using bamboo stairs – following the tradition that their dead bodies cannot be in contact with the ground. Over the years, this tradition has changed and these days they bury the corpses inside special coffins made of wood with a shape of a ship.
This unique practice originates from several myths and legends. One legend speaks of the first inhabitants of Toraja – Indo-Chinese people who arrived by boat from the North. They encountered a storm and used the ships to protect themselves. In another legend, children of the newcomers longed for a boat, which is why they build coffins in the shape of a ship. A third legend mentions that God first built such a house in heaven and then went down and did the same on earth. And, one last one suggests that it does not have the form of ships but of the horns of the buffalo.
The most important thing in the life of a Torajan is preparing the return to puya—the secret world of the ancestor or the land of souls. This is in stark contrast to the fear and denial of death in Western culture. Rather, the people of Torajan live naturally, consider death as homecoming, and the funeral as the most important ritual of a life cycle.
In many cases, the family keeps the body at home until they can afford an appropriate celebration.
For a Toraja, corpses are not dead. It is makula (sick person) and until the funeral is celebrated and some buffaloes sacrificed, the soul of the person remains bound within the house. Until then, each day, they will bring them drinks, food, take care of them –talk to them.
Often, the Torajans clean coffins of the deceased and change their clothes. It is called Ma’nene or second funeral. That day, families choose the clothes and necklaces that the deceased’s body will wear in a new rest. They clean and comb them.
In the Sulawesi region, death is a gradual social process and not an individual event. When the Western world sees death as an irrefutable biological condition, the Toraja see it as the demise of a corporeal form as part of a broader social genesis. A member of society is only truly dead when the whole family can agree and organize the necessary resources to hold an appropriate funeral ceremony.
The way they face death is surprising – though what it is more surprising is the way contemporary societies have hidden the only unavoidable destiny for every person. Death is inevitable and life a celebration. What starts at birth, ends with death. For the body, death is the ultimate climax. For the soul, it is a mere interlude.
-Ana Marín Lario