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Living With Death in Toraja
by Judy Rae

Tongkonan
Tongkonan
One of the first things you notice when you enter Toraja Land is the construction of the tongkonan (house). As with everything else, even the word tongkonan has to do with death: "tongkonan” comes from the word tongko, meaning "to assist at one's funeral". Toraja legends claim that they arrived from the north by sea. Caught in a violent storm, their boats were so damaged as to be unseaworthy, so they used them as roofs for their new homes. It is taboo not to build the tongkonan facing north, which is the source of water (life). Also, it is very important that the tree that is used to hold up the front of the house be placed properly, with the root end of the tree in the ground, coming from the south and the top "growing" toward the north.(click on photo to enlarge)

All Houses consist of three levels. The lower level (under the house) is used as shelter for buffalo. The second level is where the family lives and the third level is the attic. The second level is divided into three rooms. The northern room is used for the grandparents and adults. The central room is lower than the other two rooms and has a dual purpose. The east side (sphere of life) is used for the kitchen and dining room, and the west side (sphere of death) is where the deceased are placed before and during the funeral ceremony. The southern room is where the husband and wife sleep with their children.


Attending the Deceased
Attending the Deceased
When someone in Toraja dies they are considered to be incurably "sick".

Because the Torajans believe that the soul leaves the body through the head, they refer to the dead as "sick in the head". During this time of "sickness", before the person is considered to be dead, the body is placed in a wooden coffin that is usually shaped like a buffalo, horse or pig and the is treated as if still alive.Twenty four hours a day family members take turns sitting with their loved one, bringing food, water and even tobacco. All of the deceased person's belongings are placed in the room with the body. It is considered disrespectful not to carry out these practices, including sleeping in the same room with the body. Torajans believe if they do not do these things, the deceased will think they don't care about him or her and will bring bad luck to the village. The soul is said to roam the village until the relatives save enough money and harvest rice in preparation for the death ritual. This wait can take weeks, months and even years. During this entire waiting period the body is kept in the home. Although herbs and plants are used during the embalming, the body decomposes in the coffin. Different methods are used to deal with the smell of the decaying body. One method is to have a magician come and "catch" the last breath of the dying person in a bamboo tube, which is then covered and thrown into the forest. Because the smell has been "thrown away" the family can’t smell the bod


Funeral Grounds
Funeral Grounds
The other method to rid the home of the smell is to drill a hole in the bottom of the coffin, insert a bamboo pole and drain the body fluids into the ground.

The death ritual can begin when the relatives have been notified and given time to travel to the ceremony and the family has accumulated enough money, rice, buffalo, hogs and chickens to carry out a "proper" affair. Only then is the deceased considered "dead". At this time a buffalo is slaughtered and the family begins to mourn. The deceased is moved from the southern room to the central room and the head now faces south. Only the dead can face south and it is taboo for a living person to sleep facing this direction. The death ritual lasts for several days and during this time, temporary houses are built around the rante (a field set aside for funeral ceremonies) and depending on the type of burial, either a monolith stone or a hole in a cliff or boulder will be carved. At this time the body is moved to the rice barn and re-wrapped in a funeral cloth.

Then the corpse is carried to the funeral grounds along with a tau-tau. A tau-tau is an effigy in the likeness of the deceased. Tau-tau means "not a human, not a puppet'. The spirit is believed to live in the tau-tau. It is placed on a balcony in front of the grave and each year after rice harvest, the clothes on the effigy are replaced and the corpse is re-wrapped. Family members then ask their deceased ancestor for well being, good crops and healthy children.


Cliff side graves and Tau Taus.
Cliff side graves and Tau Taus.
The deceased and the effigy are then placed on a high platform where they can "watch" the ceremony and the procession of buffalo, pigs, chanters and dancers. The next few days are spent receiving mourners, watching buffalo fights, eating, dancing and singing. On the last day the corpse is carried to the grave.


It is believed that the soul of the deceased rides to the "other side" on a buffalo or horse. Therefore, the more buffalo offered for sacrifice at the funeral the more reassured the family will be that their loved one will reach their final destination. It is also important that a particular type of buffalo be used for this purpose. A white and black spotted buffalo with big horns is the most highly prized. A buffalo of this type is very rarely sacrificed because it is so highly prized. When the owner that brought this buffalo takes it back home they will reimburse the grieving family in cash for the offering. The second most prized is black with a white head, the third, pure white and the fourth, pure black. Each mourner brings a gift of rice, a chicken, hog, or buffalo, depending on their financial ability. Some funerals have as many as 100 buffalo and over 1000 hogs. A strict ledger is kept of the mourners and the type of gift that was offered. This is very important because when one of the visitor’s relatives passes away, the family of the currently deceased is obligated to offer a gift of the same value.


Death Tree
Death Tree
Can you imagine, if 100 people attend the funeral of your family member then you OWE 100 people! It is a matter of honor and few Torajans would ever consider not covering the debt. Many families hock their land to land sharks in order to do this. Because of this practice, few Torajans own their own land. They are allowed to live and work on the land that had been theirs but now they are paid only enough rice and vegetables to feed their family.

There are different burial methods. The most common is a hole carved out of a boulder or cliff. The coffin is then placed in the hole. When other family members pass they will be placed in the same coffin. Noblemen and their families are placed at the highest part of the cliff. There are three social rankings. upper , middle and lower class. The lower the class, the lower the grave.


When a baby dies, they are believed not capable of riding a buffalo or horse to heaven so the body is wrapped in a cloth and placed in a hole that has been carved in a tree. The baby is then carried to heaven as the tree grows. In time the tree will close around the grave and all that will show is a small scar.

Toraja may seem like a depressing place, with all the talk and preoccupation with death, but that is not the case. With towering mountains and hidden villages, Toraja is a beautiful place. Anyone who takes the time and effort to trek into these remote villages will step back in time and be treated as honored guests.