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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Indonesia: A Torajan Funeral

The colourful coffin at a Torajan funeral in Buntulepong
The colourful coffin on display at the Torajan funeral in Buntulepong

Whatever the sights, there's no doubt that the highlight of a trip to Tana Toraja – the area of central Sulawesi whose capital is Rantepao – is to visit a funeral. This is easier than it sounds; because the funeral celebrations take a lot of preparation, not to mention expense, the Torajans have two funerals for each death, much like the Balinese. The first one is a private affair straight away after the death, and the body is preserved in the house where it died until the necessary cash has been saved up for the second one, a much bigger, more public affair. Because the second funeral is effectively a huge party and can be held at any time, it tends to be organised for between July and October, when the relatives can come to visit more easily during the school holidays. This leads to the strange concept of the Funeral Season, which Rose and I were lucky enough to catch the end of.

Mark chatting with the funeral crowd
Chatting with the funeral crowd

The Funeral Celebrations

Guests parading with their gifts
The guests arrive and parade their gifts of buffalo, pigs and kretek

We were welcomed like long lost family members when we finally arrived at the village, having traipsed through paddy fields and some stunning mountain views. Arabica coffee was offered – without a doubt the best coffee I'd had in Indonesia – and kreteks were passed around, for this is the way of the party. Guests are expected to bring presents, whether it's water buffalo, pigs, food or cigarettes, and our gift of a large box of Gudang Garam kreteks went down a treat. And if we were concerned about breaching etiquette with our cameras, we needn't have been; within two minutes of our arrival, the locals had whipped out their own cameras to snap the three white people who had come to pay their respects to the deceased.

Pigs bound up with bamboo
The pigs are carried to the funeral on bamboo poles, bound and squealing
A water buffalo being scarificed
The sacrificial water buffalo is pulled up by its nose, and its throat is slit by a slash from a sharp knife
Men skinning a dead water buffalo
The skin comes off the slaughtered buffalo in the blink of an eye
Butchering a buffalo
Before you know it, the buffalo is nothing more than piles of raw meat

Tuak and Bemos

A man drinking tuak
A man drinking tuak from a homemade bamboo cup

Many more sights made the rest of the day a fascinating glimpse into the Torajan way of life. Every half an hour the people from another village would arrive, bearing gifts of pigs and buffalo, cigarettes and food, parading themselves and their gifts round the arena, stepping lightly round headless carcasses and piles of excrement. A woman clad in a bright yellow dress guided the villagers, men first and then women, in a line round the edge of the arena, making sure that the details of every gift were noted down in a little book, so that every gift would be reciprocated at the next funeral; in this way a vague balance of payments is kept between villages, helping to prevent too much of an imbalance.

Leaving the funeral
Leaving the funeral