Indonesia: Living with the dead. Could you do it?

Don’t believe in magic? Never had a deceased person in your living room? Never watched an animal sacrifice? Visit Tana Toraja. It’s a land like no other. I’ve never had an experience like it. Tana Toraja is in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and although it’s far off the typical tourist track, it’s worth a visit for sure.

 

The villages of Tana Toraja sit between rice fields and jungle mountains, and is an icky few hours drive through spectacular landscapes from Belopa. Although many villagers now identify themselves as Christian, many still uphold animistic traditions, and are completely at one with the dead. Believing in reincarnation and connecting with their dead, Torajans still practice the ancient ways of dealing with the dead.

 

When we visited, we were extremely lucky to be invited to a traditional funeral ceremony. We had no idea what to expect, and it still seems hard to believe. I’ve been to many funerals, but none compare to this one… this is not for the faint hearted (and put me off meat for two months) … you have been warned.

 

Firstly, the funeral was for a lady who died aged 116. Amazing right?! She had 109 grandchildren and had died two years before (imagine all the names and birthdays?!). Unlike our funerals, Torajans believe that the spirit stays alive, so they embalm the body and keep it in the house to care, feed, clothe and look after it. Funerals can take years, and the body stays with the family until then. The whole village save money together, and the family move into traditional housing which is protected by white magic. Torajans believe that no funeral can take place while there’s negativity felt. If people in the family are not getting on so well, then the funeral will wait until all relationships are fully fixed again. If a daughter is studying away at university, they wait for her return. It’s an amazing commitment.

 

Funerals can last days, and this one was four days long. Living more simpler lives, Torajans save all their money for lavish funerals. They feed their guests buffalos and pigs which are considered to be holy. The buffalo and pig are killed at the ceremony, and given as a sacrifice to the gods. The more that are killed, the more wealth is represented of the deceased family. On our visit, we watched the slaughter of around 11 buffalo. Slit from the neck, bleeding out, then skinned in the main arena, family and friends watch and celebrate the sacrifices. I’ve never smelt, or seen anything like it. Words cannot describe.

 

And for someone from the West, who’s meat is purchased from a packet, and who’s dead are buried within days, it was completely shocking. But, thinking about it now, it’s remarkable and beautiful. Adults and children were at one with the dead, at complete peace, with no taboo or awkwardness. The children were not wrapped up in cotton wall, their eyes were not covered, and there was something so beautifully natural about their connection to the dead. After all, it is the most natural thing in the world, right?! We could definitely learn something from them.

 

Once the ceremony is over, the dead are buried in caves, trees and homes made for them. They’re never forgotten about, and are regularly given gifts of food, money and cigarettes by their friends and family. And every few years, they’re taken out of their caskets, cleaned, greeted, and celebrated all over again. Torajans believe that the magic of the land helps protect the community, and keeps the dead more alive.

 

Tana Toraja is literally a land full of magic, and celebration of life and death. The people were friendly, kind and so hospitable. I encourage every single one of you to visit this enchanting community at some point in your lives!

 

And here’s the latest BBC documentary which explores Tana Toraja for those who want to see more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08p0z6x/our-world-living-with-the-dead

 

Thanks for reading!

Have a good day,

V

X

 

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