The funerary practices of the Toraja people

maptorajaTucked away in the mountainous region of a southern Indonesian island, the Tana Toraja people practice elaborate funerary rituals. A unique ceremony custom is performed after a Toraja member dies. Very often, the ceremony is held weeks, months, and even years *after* their death. This gives families that need time a window of opportunity to raise the costly funds of funeral expenses. In the meantime, the body is wrapped in cloth and temporarily placed under their homes. The Torajans  believe the soul lingers around the village until the ceremony, which frees the soul so that they can begin their journey to the “Puya” (a place for spirits).

Stone graves on a cliffside (Photo: Flickr)

After a ceremony that spans 6 days that includes dozens of machete-slaughtered water buffaloes, pigs, and chickens, the body is properly laid to rest in a cave, a stone grave on the side of a mountain cliff, or in a coffin that is hung off a tree or cliff. Babies are placed inside of trees. They are now free to begin the Puya journey.

A tree of babies graves
A Torajan dressing his dead loved ones (Sijori Images).

In another yearly ritual called “Ma’Nene,” the dead are exhumed, washed in the river, bathed with local herbs, and brought back to ‘walk’ and ‘dance’ in the village. It is not uncommon to see dead Torajans sitting fully dressed in their family homes for years.

A family and their dead loved one.
A family walking their dead loved one
A family ‘walking’ their dead loved one

Of course, the more money a member has allows them to have a better funeral arrangements. The Toraja people don’t save up for retirement, they literally save up for death. The Tana Toraja region is on UNESCO’s World Heritage tentative list.

Anthropologist Kelli Swazey explores the Torajan’s cultural funerary practices in this TED-MED Talk: