Many foreigners are shocked to hear that, among the Toraja people, the dead stay at home getting fed and pampered in bizarre traditions famously known as the Toraja death rituals.
For most people, the transition from life and death can be distressing. However, the Torajans have found a way to blur the line between life and death with Toraja death rituals. For this reason, death is not as scary to the Torajan people as it is to most societies.
Among the Torajans, even after someone dies, they still stick around and hang out with the living. In some parts of the world, people lose ties with their living relatives before their actual deaths, thanks to retirement homes.
How Did The Puzzling Toraja Death Ritual Begin?
Torajans live in Tana Toraja, which is found in the South Sulawesi region in Indonesia. The region boasts of picturesque mountains, but the most exciting thing about the area is the Toraja death ritual. It's an ancient practice that has won the locals fame throughout the world.
The Toraja death ritual is one of the most complex burial rituals globally. For most people, life ends after death, but death is just the beginning for these folks.
Apparently, the ritual started long ago with a hunter known as Pong Rumasek. While roaming the hills of Toraja, he came across a corpse under a tree. He wrapped it in his clothes and buried it, earning himself a life of good fortune and wealth.
After his story spread around, Torajans started believing that the spirits would reward them for caring for the dead. The Torajan death ritual is believed to have started in 9 AD.
The dead are honored and treated with unimaginable respect and dignity, which makes the Toraja death ritual both impressive and shocking. Some of the biggest celebrations in this community happen after people pass away.
In fact, while most people try to enjoy the work of their hands while they are still alive, Torajans work hard to ensure they have wealth to spend after their deaths. Toraja death rituals are very elaborate, and they give the people a chance to show off their wealth and prosperity.
Therefore, it goes without saying that the most prominent community members have some of the most lavish lives after their deaths.
The Meaning Of Death And How It Justifies The Toraja Death Ritual
To Torajans, death does not happen in an instant. Instead, this is a process that can take months and even years.
As far as these Indonesian people are concerned, it can take a long time for someone to pass to the afterlife, which can only happen after someone is buried.
The premise of the Toraja death ritual is that the deceased is only "sick" and not dead. That is why the dead stay with the living until it is their time to pass on to the afterlife.
Obviously, the Toraja death ritual involves interventions intended to help preserve the body from rotting. Traditionally, the locals wrapped the bodies in blankets and used herbal elixirs to protect them.
These days that has changed. The bodies are now preserved using formalin injections. Technically, this ends up creating mummies.
How The Torajans Live Comfortably With The Dead
During the Toraja death ritual, the body stays in a room behind the family home. It also has to face south since that's where heaven is located, according to the Torajans.
Family members have to tend to the body throughout the day. Therefore, the Toraja death ritual is a huge undertaking considering that the body can stay with the family for years. The body has to be visited, talked to, and offered food and drink every day.
However, even as this happens, the family has to prepare for a funeral, both emotionally and financially.
The Toraja death ritual is a massive show of respect to the deceased. The family believes that the person's soul remains within the house during this process. That also means that the person is still part of the family.
When visitors come to the home, they are usually introduced to the deceased. The family also goes to considerable lengths to ensure that the deceased is part of their daily life.
The Bamboo Effigy, "Tau Tau"
After a person passes away and the Toraja death ritual gets underway, other preparations continue in the background, particularly the commissioning of the Tau Tau. Tau Tau means "statue."
This carving looks like the deceased person and ends up being dressed in clothes that the deceased wore.
These effigies are not cheap, and they can cost the family more than $1,500. However, the actual cost depends on the person's rank in society.
This effigy has the critical role of protecting the dead after the Toraja death ritual. The Tau Tau is kept with the body. As the body is buried, it is moved above the cave in which the person is buried.
What Happens After The Toraja Death Ritual?
The Toraja death ritual ends with a big celebration in which the body is finally taken to its final resting place. Again, just as the deceased's wealth dictates how long the death ritual lasts, wealth also determines how extravagant the burial ceremony will be.
Generally, the amount of resources available determines the number of animals slaughtered during the ceremony. Typically, at least six water buffaloes are slaughtered, but as many as 100 water buffaloes are killed in some cases.
A buffalo can cost as much as $40,000, with the cheapest costing around $10,000.
The expected extravagance of these ceremonies partly explains why the Toraja death rituals sometimes last for years. Families can sometimes take quite a while to collect all the required resources. Therefore, Toraja death rituals, in some ways, buy the family time to prepare for this ceremony.
The more the buffaloes are involved, the more quickly the deceased will find their way into the afterlife. The horns of these animals are then used to decorate the family home of the dead.
Guests are actually expected to bring a buffalo or a pig, which is usually considered a debt to be repaid later. The burial ceremony can take anywhere between 2 days and two weeks. That usually depends on the status of the person being buried.
Usually, the dead are buried on the side of a cliff that can be up to 30 meters off the ground. The trickiest part about this process is that specialists have to carry the deceased to their final resting place without any safety equipment, all for a small payment. The bodies are taken far away to discourage grave robbers.
Generally, funerals are extremely expensive affairs that cost as much as $500,000. At the very least, the ceremony costs about $50,000.
What Benefits Does The Toraja Death Ritual Offer?
Although it is challenging living with the dead, the Torojans are not about to ditch this ancient tradition. As far as they are concerned, this ritual brings good fortune.
In any case, there is no denying that the Toraja death ritual prepares everyone, including the young, for the afterlife. These people have learned to see death as a natural part of life's journey.
Even after the dead are buried in their graves, they are usually brought out every year in August for another ritual known as Ma'nene, or "care for ancestors." This gives the living a chance to give the dead new clothes and clear the coffins of insects and dirt.
This is usually a big occasion, and family and friends often travel over long distances to participate in the celebrations. After the ceremonies, the dead are generally given gifts such as watches and glasses.
Although the Toraja death rituals take a lot of effort, for the Torajans, the tradition turns an otherwise joyless event into a celebration.