Tana Toraja Death Ritual

Life and Death in Sulawesi’s Heavenly Kingdom

The journey to Tana Toraja, located in the highlands of Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, is not an easy one. Known locally as “The Land of Heavenly Kings,” Tana Toraja is 10 hours by bus from the nearest airport (Makassar) on a good day – the day I arrived was not such a day.

Or, maybe it was.

“You’re in luck,” the short, smiling man informed me, after I’d selected him from one of the dozens of tour guides who harangued me upon disembarking from the bus. I hadn’t slept much the night before, thanks as much to bumpy road conditions as to howling infants, so I was intrigued to hear why he thought I was so lucky.

“There is a very big funeral today – one of the biggest we’ve had in months,” he continued, removing a paper map of the region from his pocket to denote its location relative to where we were, in the town of Rantepao. “But if you want to make it, we must leave now.”

(Funerals, it might surprise you, are the reason most people visit Tana Toraja.)

Need help planning your trip to Tana Toraja? Hire me as your Travel Coach!

Tana Toraja Funerals

As we sped off by motorbike, I was surprised at how quickly the industrial clamor of Rantepao gave way to the tranquility of the Torajan countryside. With towering limestone karsts and emerald rice fields, the landscape was strangely similar to the one you find in Laos, although traditional boat-shaped houses gives Tana Toraja a distinct flavor.

 
 
 
 
 

My guide hadn’t been joking about the size of the funeral. When we arrived, approximately two hours before the beginning of the festivities, no less than 100 people were already in attendance, from “VIP” guests lounged in cabana-style waiting areas underneath the traditional rice barns on-site, to commoners (including me) who enjoyed simple food and tea in temporary buildings constructed especially for the funeral.

“In Torajan culture,” my guide explained, as he handed me a juicy piece of bamboo-cooked pork, “families may wait several months or even years after a person dies to bury them. During this time, the family preserves the body, either using modern chemicals or more traditional methods. Until the burial, the person is technically considered ‘sick.'”

“How long has this one been dead?” I pointed toward the eerily life-like effigy that had been placed in front of the elaborately-carved coffin at the center of the funeral site.

He excused himself to ask one of the hostesses to clarify. “One year,” he answered. “Exactly one year. But be quiet for now – it’s starting.”

After a lively circle dance performed men dressed in royal blue and a “rice pounding” ritual performed by local women dressed in purple, the procession began. A long line of no less than 100 women formed, holding up a long, red cloth which symbolized the deceased person’s path to the afterlife. Once they began walking down into the town, men carrying the coffin and the effigy followed.

 
 
 
 
 

From the drum beat that signaled the commencement of the funeral to the moment that coffin was placed in a “sky cabin” above one of the houses, the mood the event was festive, perhaps even joyful. The pallbearers would occasionally hoist the coffin up, and then rapidly down, to symbolize the launching of the deceased person’s soul into the next life; the women underneath the red cloth, in spite of its harsh color, were smiling and laughing widely.

Unfortunately, not all aspects of Tana Toraja funerals are positive. Depending on the wealth of the family, as many as 24 buffalo are slaughtered; some pigs and other animals are occasionally sacrificed as well. The buffalo who are lucky enough not to die during the funeral are subjected to fighting after the burial, which I personally skipped – ain’t nobody got time for animal cruelty!

Baby Graves in Tana Toraja

The good news is that not all of the burial rituals in Tana Toraja involved barbarianism. Some are even sweet! This includes the “baby graves,” which I must admit sounded rather macabre when my guide first told me we were going to visit them.

“Inside this tree,” my guide explained, pointing up to the crude palm coverings papering the behemoth arbor’s trunk, “are the bodies of several babies, some buried centuries ago. Now, you’re probably wondering why someone would want to bury their child in a tree.”

 

I nodded.

“Well, ancient Tana Toraja people, with their animist beliefs, considered trees to be the ultimate symbol of life. By burying their young children – only those without teeth – inside a tree, the tree would act as the child’s new mother, the sap her milk. As long as the tree lived, the child would continue to have a new life inside.”

Tana Toraja Hanging Graves

Another interesting Tana Toraja burial tradition is the hanging graves you find dangling from cliffs in the region. Arranged based on social class – the rich were hung higher, i.e. closer to heaven, while the tombs of the poor often rested directly on the ground – the hanging graves of Tana Toraja are stunning not so much because they seem misplaced, but because they blend into the scenery so effortlessly.

 
 
 

Some of the hanging graves, particularly those of wealthy residents, come with their own effigies, like the ones you’ll see at a Tana Toraja funeral ceremony. Others are unmarked and are literally overflowing with skulls and bones. While rich Torajans might only be placed two bodies to a coffin, several generations of the poor are often crammed inside a single casket.

How to Get to Tana Toraja

Rantepao, the gateway to Tana Toraja, is located approximately 300 km northeast of Makassar, capital of South Sulawesi province. No flights exist between the two airports as of February 2014, which means that the only way to reach Tana Toraja is by bus.

Several buses depart Makassar’s Daya bus terminal by both day and night. Bus amenities vary, but most large buses offer AC and reclining seats – some even offer Wi-Fi. Prices vary by operator, so shop around at the station before you leave, but you can expect to pay at least 100,000 rupiah one-way.

If you don’t arrange a tour guide before arriving in Tana Toraja, don’t worry – there will be plenty waiting for you. As you should do with buses, shop around with guides to determine which offers the best price and most extensive tour. I cannot personally recommend you a guide, as the one I ended up with was mediocre at best, but staff or fellow guests in your hotel or guest house should be able to advise you.

As of February 2014, the standard Tana Toraja guide fee is 300,000 rupiah per day, which does not include the fee for a motorbike (~50,000 IDR) or car (~300,000 IDR), gasoline, entrance fees, lunch for your guide or, if you attend a Tana Toraja funeral, a gift for the family, which is customary, but not mandatory.

About The Author

is the author of 734 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!

 

informs, inspires, entertains and empowers travelers like you. My name is Robert and I'm happy you're here!

 
 
 

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Nia February 25, 2014 at 9:47 am

Wow, that’s so different than in the U.S.!! Or anywhere else that I’ve heard of. A week or two is considered a long wait before a funeral here. But a year?! Is there a low death rate there, or do they not have funerals for everyone? That’s amazing that you got to witness this event, and thank you for sharing! So interesting!!

Robert Schrader February 26, 2014 at 2:23 am

You’re very welcome Nia! Would you attend?

Alex February 26, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Tana Toraja is fascinating – I was fortunate enough to go there a few years ago too. The baby graves in trees were other-worldly.

http://www.mytravelbug.co.uk/death-according-to-the-animists/

Robert Schrader March 3, 2014 at 7:47 am

Thanks for the link!

LAMPatarru March 6, 2014 at 7:41 pm

I’m happy that you visited my hometown, Tana Toraja 🙂 Also, your photos are beautiful! Too bad that your guide is not so good. If you plan to come back again, or knowing your family/friends who want to visit Tana Toraja, you are always welcome to contact me. There’s more than funeral and graves that you haven’t seen yet. It’s not that I have travel and tour company or something, it’s just personally from me who never get bored to enjoy the beauty of it and really want to share it with other people. Hope you enjoyed your holiday in Indonesia 🙂

Robert Schrader March 7, 2014 at 11:30 am

Thanks for the tips and for the invite!

Rumba Rustaman July 23, 2014 at 12:36 am

Thank you for your post! very helpful at all! I plan to go there next month. Very happy if there is advise from you!

Robert Schrader July 23, 2014 at 9:45 am

Just keep reading my blog!

Salman Firdaus October 20, 2014 at 11:30 pm

It’s too expensive to have the funeral directly after a relative is deceased. They need to save up first. Actually one year is quite short. Does who are not so well-off might need 5-20 years to pool the money.

Robert Schrader October 21, 2014 at 6:01 am

This is another good point! It makes sense that such an elaborate funeral is so expensive.

Nikki December 3, 2014 at 2:20 am

I’ll be based in Bali for a few weeks in March 2015, and I’m considering
a trip to Tana Toraja. Would you think it safe for a woman to travel
there alone? And how many days roundtrip if leaving from Bali would you
recommend to stay? Or other places/things to do in Sulawesi you’d recommend before taking off?

Thanks!

Robert Schrader December 5, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Hi Nikki:

It’s definitely safe for a woman there, especially considering that you will be with a guide for the funeral proceedings. There’s some good diving in north Sulawesi, but it’s quite far from Toraja, so unless you have some extra time, I think Toraja (and potentially Makkasar, since you’ll have to fly there) is it. As far as time, I would say minimum three days, so you don’t feel rushed. If flights from Makkasar to Pongtiku Airport (which serves Toraja) have restarted (they weren’t operating when I was there), you might be able to swing it in two.

Good luck!

Antoinette Stapwl December 6, 2014 at 5:20 am

Hi Robert, inspiring to read about your vist in Tanah Torajah! We plan to ride the whole stretch, from Makkasar up and down , on motorbikes next year. We prefer motorbikes as we like to stop when we want and see more from the countryside. Could you recommend a rental shop or person who rents Honda Tigers or equivalent bikes?

Kind regards, Antoinette from Holland

Nikki December 7, 2014 at 11:22 pm

Thank you so much for the tips Robert! Much appreciated!

Robert Schrader December 8, 2014 at 9:18 am

Hi Antoinette:

Here is a highly-rated company:

62 823 4977 5555 (Prima Rental)

yawan March 28, 2015 at 1:05 pm

– Prau Hills (50km North from jogjakarta, and 2 hour hiking)
– Padar Island (Komodo National Park)

Robert Schrader March 31, 2015 at 7:46 am

Oh wow 🙂

maria April 29, 2015 at 3:46 am

Dear LAMPatarru…….my name is Maria and I’m writing you from Italy. Me and my friend Claudia are planning to visit Tana Toraja in August this year. I was looking for a guide …could you please help me with this? We will stay in Rantepau for 3 days.
My email address is: dmmary@hotmail.it .
Thank you in advanced.
Maria

Nikki June 18, 2016 at 7:01 am

Hi,
We are considering visiting Tana Toraja but will only be there for a couple of days at the start of July. Do you know if the funerals are quite often/ what are chances might be of attending one? It sounds like quite a surreal experience. Thanks for your advice.

Robert Schrader June 20, 2016 at 8:24 am

Funerals occur almost every day of the year. And since you’ll be visiting as a foreigner, locals will know that’s why you’re there.

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