The Toraja Burial Customs

by Marie-Andree Abt

The Toraja people were originally from central Sulawesi in Indonesia. They are about 1.5 million strong but less than 500,000 live in their native land, the remainder have sought work in Makassar or Jakarta. By doing this, they can send money to their family in Tanah Toraja.

Their traditional burial customs are expensive to practice, particularly for the noble caste. The caste system is still used in Toraja society; there are nobles, warriors, traders, free men and “slaves”, the last ones being well treated and respected. A “slave” can cut tie with the family he works with at his own time and will.

When someone dies, the body is quickly embalmed but it stays at home, up to one year sometimes, so family and friends can come and see the dead who is considered “very sick” until the burial ceremony takes place. For this ceremony, the family will first buy buffaloes (one animal and up to two hundred, depending on how wealthy was the dead). The price of each buffalo depends on the marks of his robe; one with the proper “white” marks on the head can fetch several tens of thousands dollars.

Then they prepare the temporary bamboo huts to welcome the guests. The enlarged family, the friends, and all the people who have been familiar with the dead are invited; the family of the dead “gives back” to every person who has helped in one way or another to enable the dead to become wealthy.

The ceremony is now ready to take place. Generally, it lasts several days. Each day, the male slaves of the family sacrifice one to several buffaloes followed by pigs (bought at the market). They prepare the meat to feed everybody while the women prepare the drinks.

Some men dance while singing the main events of the dead’s life. All the guests bring gifts. The ceremony master states the names of the guests and their gifts. When all the gifts have been given, the dead is ready to be buried. As the earth is here to give birth, corpses cannot be buried and so the Toraja entomb the bodies in cliffs or large boulders.

It takes six months for a man to chisel out the grave from a boulder.

In addition, the nobles and warriors have the right to have their effigy sculpted in wood and displayed on a “balcony” near the grave.

If they are really wealthy and have sacrificed at least 200 buffaloes, a megalith can be raised in a specific field close to their village.

When a little baby dies, he is not strong enough to reach heaven by himself, so the Toraja entomb him in a big tree trunk so the tree can help the baby to go to heaven. The tree shall be alive and if the tree dies, a part of it is transferred to another tree that becomes the next “passeur d’âme”.

I learned about the Toraja burial practices during my short stay in Tanah Toraja, a very nice part of Sulawesi surrounded by mountains. Our guide, Otto who is part of the noble cast, was very helpful in teaching us all the customs of his tribe.

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Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

2 thoughts on “The Toraja Burial Customs”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing, Marie-Andree! It was most interesting. Another little snippet to add to Gallery A, even if it’s only by comparison.

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