The Toraja Death Ritual: A Journey Into the Afterlife

Toraja people treat their deceased relatives as if they were still alive, keeping them in their homes until their funerals are extravagant enough to honour their memory.

The Toraja people of Indonesia approach death with an exuberant attitude, which is the opposite of how mortality is viewed in Western society.

They believe death is an essential element of living, in which they take great care to honour the dead in order to facilitate their transition to the afterlife.

Preparing for a funeral is a lengthy process, and the dead bodies remain in their family homes until the time of the funeral. During this time, their relatives dress them, feed them, and swat away the flies from their rotting skin.

Are you ready to take a closer look at Toraja death ritual?

Toraja Girls in Traditional clothes Source: Wikipedia

Who Are The Toraja?

There are hundreds of thousands of Toraja people living in the South Sulawesi region of Indonesia, the country’s geographical centre. The area is mountainous and tropical, and daily downpours and high temperatures are routine.

Torajans had little contact with the outside world until the Dutch started occupying their territory in 1906.

Torajans maintain the belief that their forefathers were heavenly creatures who came to earth using a heavenly staircase. This is more important than anything else.

The Torajan people live in small villages in the Sulawesi highlands, where dirt roads link them. Tongkonan, the unique houses, are particularly renowned. Their tall, arched roofs are supported by stilts and decorated with carvings.

Toraja life is dominated by family connections, and the tongkonan is the hub where virtually everything of significance occurs. Government affairs, weddings, and religious ceremonies are just a few of the many facets of Toraja culture that are centred on this unique structure.

Torajans’ unique treatment of the dead, however, is what truly sets them apart.

Toraja Houses
Source: Unsplash

Living Among The Dead

Toraja people place a great importance on funerals, and death is their primary concern. Family members are cared for until a funeral can be arranged, often for weeks or even years after their death. When a person dies, he or she is referred to as to makula’, a sick person, rather than dead. Thus, they remain a very important part of the people’s lives.

Keeping and caring for a dead body in the house for weeks or even years might seem unfathomable to Westerners, but in Torajan culture, it is routine.

Before they are interred, the bodies of the deceased are preserved using a mixture of formaldehyde and water. During this time, the Bible  is read daily.

When sufficient money has been raised and all relatives have been notified, the family begins funeral and burial preparations. Funerals are a visible sign of social status among Torajans. People frequently go into debt to provide a dignified burial for their relatives out of respect for the deceased. In addition, a man might refuse to marry if he believes his would-be bride has a family member who may soon pass away.

Toraja Death Ritual
Source: Unsplash

Cliffside Tombs

During the final day of a funeral, the body is transported to its final resting place, typically a tomb carved into a cliff or an ancestral funeral tower.

Specialists who climb without any safety equipment build these tombs, which may be as high as 100 feet above the ground. The height of the tomb is often associated with the status of the individual.

A baby that has died before teething begins is placed in a hollowed out portion of a tree. These “baby trees” are thought to absorb the child’s spirit as it regrows.

Wooden or bamboo effigies of the deceased are placed on the balcony of the dead person’s tomb. They’re called tau tau and are generally placed in front of the tomb.

Often, families spend a small fortune having a detailed tau tau of their loved one made. Because it can be a tad bit expensive, some families keep it at home out of fear that it will be stolen.

Ma’nene: Refreshing The Dead

Toraja Death Ritual: Ma'nene

During ma’nene, relatives who have been dead for over a decade are exhumed from their tombs, cleaned of bugs, clothed with fresh garments, and thoroughly wiped and sprayed.

A well-preserved body is a blessing for the Toraja, and seeing how well the dead body is holding up is part of the experience.

Key Takeaways of Toraja Death Ritual

There is no fear of death among the Torajans, who believe that the dead never truly leave them. Because death is seen as just another phase of life, families don’t try to preserve their sick members alive as long as possible via modern medical techniques. Rather, they allow them to pass away naturally.

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