Experience a Funeral Ceremony in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia
Okay, it might sound bizarre: attending a funeral during your vacation. But believe us, if you truly want to experience the unique culture of Sulawesi, you cannot miss witnessing a funeral ritual in Tana Toraja. These intense and colorful ceremonies offer an unforgettable glimpse into the deeply rooted traditions of this region. Throughout the year, numerous ceremonies take place, but the majority are held in July and August, which can make the area quite busy.
In this article
- How to Attend a Funeral Ceremony in Tana Toraja?
- Why Experience a Funeral Ceremony in Sulawesi, Indonesia?
- What are the Costs and What to Bring?
- Exhuming the Dead during the Ma’nene Festival
- Tau Tau Dolls
- Our Own Experience in Tana Toraja – Leroy is Foetsie
How to Attend a Funeral Ceremony in Tana Toraja?
Sulawesi is not your typical backpacker hotspot. Consequently, many trips, especially in Tana Toraja, are organized. Although the funeral rituals are open to everyone, it’s not appropriate to show up like an excited tourist on a scooter. We decided to integrate more and chose to stay with a local mother and son in Rantepao.
The son became our guide for a day, taking us around on his scooter and inviting us to a funeral ritual. The experience was amazing; we were fully immersed in the event. No other tourists in sight, no segregated “tourist zone.” We were one with the community, which is not always easy to achieve.
For animal lovers (like me), the ceremony can be a bit challenging. Witnessing a mass slaughter is not on my top ten list of things to see. Thankfully (though the buffalo might disagree), a buffalo had already been slaughtered before we arrived. There were also many live pigs, which would be divided among the families and later sacrificed (sometimes months later).
It’s important to note that not all animals are slaughtered immediately, and all animals are eventually eaten. Before being sacrificed, the buffaloes are treated like royalty – they receive daily scrubbing and mud baths. It’s an intense yet deeply cultural experience you won’t soon forget.
Why Experience a Funeral Ceremony in Sulawesi, Indonesia?
In their culture, death is not just the end; it is an important transition to Puya, the next world or the sky heaven. The offerings made during the ceremonies symbolize the status and value of the deceased, with the hope that this wealth and status will pass on to the afterlife.
Be prepared for ceremonies that can last for days and come with significant costs. The preparations for such rituals can take months. During this time, the deceased is embalmed and may remain in the family home for some time, allowing the family to say their farewells.
During the ceremony, the life of the deceased is celebrated in an exuberant manner with abundant food, drinks, and rituals. It may provide a different perspective on death than what we are used to, but it will undoubtedly offer an unforgettable experience. This is something you may only encounter once in a lifetime.
What are the Costs and What to Bring?
As a tourist, you are warmly welcomed, and in fact, it is often considered an honor, but showing up empty-handed is not acceptable. It is customary to bring an offering, such as a pack of cigarettes or sugar (or in our case, a carton of cigarettes and a package of sugar – we went all-in).
Ask your guide to help you find a suitable offering. Additionally, you will need to cover the cost of your guide. We paid around 10 euros per person for a day tour on scooters, and if you have the chance to take a scooter tour, we highly recommend it.
Exhuming the Dead during the Ma’nene Festival
Yes, you read it right! And yes, it’s a thing in Sulawesi. The ritual is known as ‘Ma’nene’ and is truly a unique part of Toraja culture in Sulawesi. In Toraja, people believe that death is not the end but rather a passage to the next life or sky heaven! The bond with your loved ones doesn’t end here with death; they continue to cherish and maintain the bond through Ma’nene.
During Ma’nene, families excavate the remains of their deceased loved ones every few years, typically around every three years. They clean the bones, replace the clothing, and sometimes spend hours talking and praying with the remains of their loved ones. It is a deeply moving experience filled with both sorrow and joy.
Although it may sound morbid, Ma’nene is actually an expression of respect and love. It’s a way for the locals to honor the connection with the deceased. So if you ever get the chance to experience this unique ritual in Sulawesi, be open-minded and respectful.
Tau Tau Dolls
Another prominent feature you will notice in Tana Toraja is the Tau Tau dolls. They may look a bit eerie, but they hold great significance in Toraja culture. Tau Tau dolls are essentially wooden effigies made to represent the deceased. They are dressed in traditional Toraja clothing and are often incredibly detailed – some even have identical facial features as the deceased person. They are considered protectors of the living and help guide the spirit of the deceased to the afterlife.
Our Experience in Tana Toraja – Leroy is Gone
Today, the alarm goes off at 4:00 AM. The owner of the guesthouse where we are staying is taking us to a funeral ceremony today, but before we head to the ceremony, he wants to show us more of the beautiful surroundings of Tana Toraja. We gladly accept the offer!
After a good cup of coffee, we hop on our scooters and follow Wilanda into the mountains. He wanted us to leave early to witness the sunrise, so we ride for about 1.5 hours into the mountains to reach the viewpoint. The early wake-up call is undoubtedly worth it. What a view! As we ascend with our scooters, we pass through the clouds just as the sun rises. It’s one of the most stunning views we’ve ever seen.
We continue our journey through the breathtaking mountains of Tana Toraja, with the funeral ceremony as our final destination. It may sound strange, but we are really looking forward to this. This ceremony is truly unique; nowhere else in the world is it conducted this way. So yes, it’s something incredibly special.
After a picturesque two-hour ride, we arrive in the village where it’s all going to happen. We feel a mix of excitement and curiosity. What unique experience awaits us?
We are the only tourists (which is quite nice), and all the guests warmly welcome us. But before we can witness the actual funeral, we need to change our clothes. After some struggle with putting on the sarong (thankfully, the friendly women helped us), it’s time to enter the “arena.” We wait for a while before it’s our turn to go inside, and one after another, pigs are brought in. I must admit that the screaming and squealing of the pigs make quite an impression. The sound is bone-chilling, and I feel a bit queasy in my stomach. But well, we need to endure this; it’s part of the ceremony.
The time comes, and we, along with our ‘guide,’ are allowed to enter. As soon as we’re inside, we see a massive amount of freshly slaughtered meat, huge pools of blood, and an overwhelming smell. It’s quite an experience to acclimatize to.
“How on earth did we end up here?”
Once we are assigned our spots, or well, men and women sit separately. We look at each other and think, “How on earth did we end up here?” At this moment, the family of the deceased starts distributing coffee and cookies, and I am already full of kretek cigarettes that keep coming my way. Since I am quite far from Wilanda, and none of the other guests speak English, communication mainly relies on gestures and lots of laughter. Despite feeling a bit uncomfortable at first, it is absolutely a fantastic experience!
And then things went wrong!
Our guide had already told us beforehand that we should bring an offering. So he arranged a carton of cigarettes and a kilogram of sugar for us. This always goes down well! Perfect, right?
What I unfortunately didn’t know was that you were supposed to present the offering during the distribution of coffee and cookies. I saw someone reaching for my plastic bag, but I thought, “Wait a minute, that’s not for you, it’s for the widow.” It wasn’t until much later that I realized everyone was laughing at me. Well, after the coffee and cookies, we were taken to a new place (they serve the coffee and cookies in a waiting house before taking you to the house where you will eat).
“But do I have to climb up there?”
We walk through buffalo heads and pig intestines towards our new spot. At that moment, Wilanda tells me that I still need to hand over my offering to the widow. The widow sits in the middle of the whole scene on a sort of tower made of bamboo sticks. I look at Wilanda and ask him, “But do I have to climb up there?” Yes, indeed, he answers, you have to climb up there. I think to myself, “Oh no! This is not going to end well.” My sarong restricts my already less-than-stellar climbing skills, and suddenly, I become the center of attention at the ceremony. Approximately 200 people are watching a tall white man trying to climb to the top of the bamboo tower.
After I finally manage to get to the top and present my offering, the widow gestures for me to sit beside her!?!? What?! Um, okay then. So there I am, on top of the tower, next to the widow, and everyone, I mean everyone, can see me. There is a lot of laughter and pointing, and I, well, I’m sweating profusely. What an experience we’re having!
Where is Desi?
Again, I smoke myself to oblivion with the kretek cigarettes, and I get startled when I realize that there is apparently a gong hanging behind my head. But most importantly, I need to find a place for my legs (I’m almost 2 meters tall). Sitting cross-legged lasts for only 5 minutes, but by now, I’ve been sitting on top of the tower for about 15 minutes.
Oh, by the way, in case you are wondering, “Where is Desi?” Well, she is calmly sipping tea with our guide and the other guests.
Well, my legs are about to give out, and the only place I can rest them is on a large wooden box. Oh, finally, some relief from the cramps in my legs. After asking several times if I can go down now, my leg is held by someone else for the first three attempts, and the widow just looks at me and laughs. Damn, I think to myself, I’m stuck up here for the rest of the day. But I really can’t take it anymore. Finally, after another 10 minutes or so, I get the signal that I can go down. After yet another perilous climb down, I finally reach the ground.
An immense honor
I ask my guide if it was strange for a “Buleh” (white man) to sit next to the widow. But he said it was an immense honor. At that moment, I can’t help but feel a bit proud. How cool!
Finally, he asks me, “Did you also see her deceased husband?” I reply, “What, where?” Yes, you might have guessed it by now. The only place I could find space for my legs was indeed in the coffin of her deceased husband. Once again, I start sweating uncomfortably. But he and the other guests can’t stop laughing.
Well, okay, it’s another unique experience to add to the list.
Time for makan (food)
We conclude the ceremony with a delicious meal (freshly slaughtered buffalo) before hopping back on the scooters to continue enjoying the rest of the day in the beautiful Tana Toraja.
Without a doubt, it was one of the most extraordinary things we have ever experienced! A definite recommendation if you are traveling to Sulawesi. Despite the awkward moments, I now consider it something unique, honorable, and beautiful. What a day, what a day!!!