A Torajan Funeral

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 October 17 2010

Our first day here we hired a guide, Martin, to take us around to some of the main funerary caves in the area.  Torajans have many traditional beliefs surrounding death, and very sensibly decided hundreds of years ago not to waste valuable farm land on grave sites.  Consequently the dead are interred  in “hanging graves” in caves hewn from the rock walls.  Originally these caves were quite large and the dead were hung from the ceiling in wooden coffins.  These are not used any more and many of the coffins have rotted and broken over the past few hundred years so that the bones have spilled out and are piled in the cave.  One family has one cave and they take care of the bones with a ceremony done every year to commemorate the dead.  It is quite an arresting sight to enter a small cave piled high with skulls and other bones.

If babies died before they were old enough to walk, they were considered to be not really dead and so were placed in holes in a special tree where the tree was thought to take over the mother’s role.  The holes were covered with a bark covering and as the years passed the holes grew over as the tree grew.  One tree we saw had graves 300 years old in it, with the most recent being 50 years ago.  Babies are now buried with the rest of the family and this practice is no longer done, but the trees are sacred and protected.

Another traditional site, which the girls may remember when they see the  picture, is of a family’s grave site in a cliff face.  Holes were hollowed out of the rock and the dead placed inside, the doors then covered with wood.  Effigies representing the dead, called “tau tau” are arranged on a kind of balcony structure on the face of the cliff and are believed to be protecting the soul from harm.  The oldest grave in this cliff was 500 years old, the newest very recent.  Sadly many of the old tau tau were stolen by grave robbers so they have been replaced with new ones, and the families keep the old ones in a safer place.  Each figure is carved and dressed to represent the dead person and they are an arresting sight as they seem to watch you with their large eyes as you walk up the track to the site.

We had the good fortune to be able to attend the first day of a local noble family’s funeral ceremony as well.  Generally funerals take place in July and August which is the dry season so we were lucky to be able to see this one.  The woman for whom the ceremony was being held had died 4 years ago.  Since there is huge expense for the family involved in a funeral, often even more years elapse before a ceremony can be performed.  Until that time the corpse is kept in the family home where it is considered to be merely sick, and is offered food and drink from time to time.  Apparently they use herbs to embalm the body to minimize the inconvenience to the nostrils of the residents.

When the children of the deceased are ready to put on the funeral, enormous preparations are undertaken.  Bamboo pavilions have to be constructed between the rice barns to accommodate, in this case, the up to 2000 guests expected to arrive.  The family must provide many buffalo for sacrifice — in the case of a noble family, a minimum of 24 and must feed all the assembled throngs over 3 to 5 days.  Each buffalo costs several hundred dollars with albino buff being a real status symbol and costing about $1200.  This family, being high status, had an enormous pink buff on display, which would be sacrificed on a later day.  They also had to supply numerous pigs for the feast.   Many of the guests also brought pigs and buffalo to contribute — it is a reciprocal arrangement, careful track was kept of who had brought what so that when that family has its next funeral they would be repaid with a similar gift. 

We sat on the periphery of the compound to view the procession which takes place on Day 1.  The coffin was a large ornately decorated box (about 8’ by 8’) topped with a swooping roof intricately decorated and festooned with coloured wool designs designating the noble family.  The whole thing was mounted on a bamboo frame which about 20 male family members prepared to carry.  All the women of the family, ornately costumed in black silk, walked in a line behind the coffin carrying a long red canopy.  Drums kept time as the men struggled to process the  coffin around and around the enclosure, led by an elder in traditional garb and followed by the first sacrificial buffalo of the day.  The coffin and its decorations was obviously terribly heavy and they had to keep stopping to rest.  At the end of the processing, they had to get it up a bamboo ramp into a dais about 20 feet off the ground.  They took off the roof which would be transported to the interment spot where each roof represents a dead person.  They then lifted the coffin off the base, but even at that it was a terrible process to get it up the ramp, one rung at a time to its resting place on the dais.  It is essential for the head of the deceased to face directly south as that is the way the soul flies to its final resting place.  Unfortunately, once it had been wrestled on to the dais, it was found that the head was facing north (someone opened a tiny trap door in the side to check) so the whole thing had to be lifted again and turned around.

Once that was done, the poor buffalo was paraded around and around again, a large knife was sharpened, and much to the horror of one of the European tourists beside me, he met his end with a slit throat.  It takes a while for a buffalo to ensanguinate (sp?) so even though I have seen this done before, I have to admit it is a grisly sight.  Then the pigs that had been waiting in the wings were carried into the ring, lashed top and bottom to bamboo poles and with feet tied together accompanied by announcements of who the donor families were.  The pigs did not take well to the treatment, perhaps the sight of the blood soaked buffalo gave them a hint about their fate, and screamed and howled as they were laid out in rows to be displayed for an hour or so before being taken away for slaughter.  As each large family group of guests entered, ornately dressed women greeted them and took them to the main pavilion for refreshments, and their contributed animals were carried into the central area for all to view.

After all the pigs and buffalo had been properly labeled and the donors’ names recorded in a book, some of the pigs were taken away to be slaughtered so that the cooks could begin to get the night’s feast ready.  Doug insisted on going out to see the slaughtering.  The expression “he screamed like a stuck pig” was graphically illustrated as the first move was to thrust a knife into the pig’s heart while trying to staunch the bleeding as much as possible so that the blood could be collected in bamboo tubes for the cooking process.  The beasts were then eviscerated and all the blood carefully collected.  Hair singed off over a fire, then hacked into quarters and carried immediately to the cooking area.  A little closer to the beginning of the food chain than most of us, with the exception of the hunters in the family, have been!

This funeral will go on for days, with more guests constantly arriving, all with animal contributions.  As we walked out of the site we made our way around an enormous traffic jam of pickups loaded with buffalo and pigs for the ceremony.  Quite the manoeuvring feat to get up the rocky path to the funeral site.  We may go back by bemo today to see how things are going.  We were very grateful to our excellent guide (again we have had good luck) as he was full of information and very sincere about the old beliefs and quite philosophical about the conflicts presented by Christianity.  When we here in 89 we attended a huge funeral and I remember being completely puzzled by half the goings on.  It is so much more interesting to understand what is happening.  I have taken to telling the guides that Doug is partially deaf, so even though he does not listen to them, I will explain it all to him later.  This seems to relieve some of the pressure they feel to keep “sir” in the loop   and Doug can wander at will as he likes to do.

We are having a catch up day today and tomorrow will go treking in the north area with Martin.  We decided against overnighting in the village because of the torrential evening downpours at this time of year, so will make a long day of it and return by bemo to Rantepeo to sleep.  After that, there is so much to do here just by walking in the villages in the surrounding area.  We will be happy for a while (and I LOVE my comfortable room!  What a wimp eh?)

I hope I haven’t exhausted you all, and if we can send Doug’s pix later this will all make better sense.  Fingers crossed I find an internet.  

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