toraja_07 © 2011 expatmonkey. All rights reserved.

When Torajans Die, It’s Kind of a Big Deal

This is the same buffalo as in the lead photo up top (in case you don't recognize him with his skin on).

A dead Torajan body may sit (well, lie is probably more accurate) in the living room for upwards of a year while the family saves up for a funeral. It’s not like a pine box and spade are out of financial reach; it’s just that dying is the biggest thing that happens to a Torajan family. Fair enough.

Between the death and the burial, the body is referred to as ‘sick’ or ‘sleeping.’ It’s believed that the soul wanders around town until the big ceremony. I imagine an old fellow bumming around bored for days, weeks, or months. “Would somebody just bury Old Man Johnson already? I’m getting sick of trying to make small talk with a corpse when I walk my dog.”

Depending on the status of the deceased, there may be in the neighborhood of dozens of buffaloes slaughtered and a hundred or more pigs. That’s a sizeable neighborhood. If we had 120 dead livestock in the neighborhood I grew up in, I imagine it would’ve been frowned upon.

But it seems something of an effective economic ecosystem—the funereal family provide the bbq/sacrifices and the rest of the community shows up with gifts of flour, sugar, grain, and perhaps a regifted breadmaker.

As an American tourist here, I thought of Tana Toraja as reasonably remote, but there were plenty of other Westerners at the day’s funeral that I visited. I split some costs with a fine British couple, Jess and Ciaran (who have an excellent blog of their own: http://halfaworldfromlondon.blogspot.com/) and we had to maneuver around maybe a dozen other tourists in the bleachers and right in the faces of the mourners.

Dead smiley face tee and a splayed pig.

Although this ritual is still quite personal (it is after all a funeral), it’s also a tourist hotspot and everyone seems accustomed or immune to all the white people with long lenses blocking your path and squeaking through to the back kitchen to see the roasting pigs and steaming rice (who isn’t intrigued by steaming rice?).

I’m not a squeamish fellow and I believe one should be able to witness the slaughter of an animal if you’re going to consume meat, but this is the only time I’ve been a little put off. Maybe it was the quantities or the combination of religion and slaughter that wafted an overwhelming aroma of gutted carcass that set my stomach shifting, but it’s the first funeral I’ve ever been to that smelled like, well, death.

After we’d given the family our considerate donation of sugar (or was it flour? Both are great gifts for any occasion) and the first act had ended, we slipped out in the intermission and carried on to see what happens to Torajans after their souls finally get to stop lingering about town.

Whatever you do, hungry piggy, don't look up.
The Torajans learned to transport animals from watching the Ewoks in "Return of the Jedi."
Appalled, I reported this flagrant health hazard to OSHA.
A solemn parade of barely sandaled feet through buffalo blood. The esteemed body is in the ad hoc porch in the upper left.
Fresh meat looks a lot more like open heart surgery than butchery.
Meat is sweet but rice is nice (as they say).
You have to be really caffeinated before you can eat a slab of pig fat this size.

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