Living With Death in Toraja
by Judy Rae
Living With Death in Toraja
by Judy Rae
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.
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
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.
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.
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.