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Muppets & Skulls: The Burial Habits of Toraja

Mahna mahna.

There is always somewhere to stow a body. We may lean toward six feet under, but Torajans go up. Reasons can be both practical and religious. Stowing a box of bones high up in a cave or carved into the rock of a mountain both keeps animals from digging them up and also places them a little closer to heaven, or the Torajan equivalent.

For my money though the ‘closer to heaven’ argument is a bit suspicious. It’s kind of like asking your significant other to drive to the store to go shopping because she’s closer to the door.

Nonetheless the impact is impressive, especially as when the box breaks and bones will fall, a ceremony is prerequisite for repositioning the remains. So there are splattered caches of family remains lingering around these funereal caves. When skulls have been repositioned for viewing as an open-air museum, they suspiciously watch you enter and pass, kinda like the Mona Lisa or One-Eyed Willy.

Tree of baby graves.

One practice that has ended in recent decades regards the burial of infants. Dead babies were placed inside trees so that as the tree grows, the child will be carried slowly to heaven. Sticks are woven over the hole in the side of the tree, and as the fated fetal population increases in the coniferous condominium, it begins to look like Keebler real estate.

Should you decide to place your own dead in exposed rock though, you may have concerns about pillage by  live human folk, as it’s something we are prone to do on occasion. Luckily there is an easy solution: effigies.

Sweet dreams.

Guarding many of these grave sites are a police lineup of wooden ventriloquist dummies who look ready to play the music and light the lights. It’s like the Land of Misfit Muppets–wooden wonders that went wrong and were banished to faraway lands to protect the dead.

However you slice it, the funeral and burial rites of Toraja are distinct reflections of deep-set beliefs upon which Christianity provides only a thin veneer. Both the long goodbye and vivid, sometimes scarring system of remembrance are a welcome cultural throwback in a place that’s been overrun by everyone under and over the rising sun.

So, come for the funeral, stay for the bacon. It’s absolutely worth the tortured nightmares you’ll inevitably have of hardwood hags with sharpened sticks, poking you like a fat, frightened pig.

Skulls, skulls, and skulls...
Looking like a stage piece from the set of Laugh In, a boulder serves as grave cupboard.
Defensive dollhouse of the dead.
This is almost exactly what the inside of my hope chest looks like. Hinky.


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