A Ceremonial Send-Off in Tana Toraja

One thing I love about being a vagabond is not knowing when I wake up in the morning what my day will bring. This morning I would not have expected that by midday I’d be sitting 10 feet from a man hacking up a buffalo carcass with a machete while I was politely being served hot tea and little cakes.

The occasion for both the buffalo killing and the cakes was the funeral of an old woman in the mountainous region of Tana Toraja in central Sulawesi. Funerals are the center of ceremonial life for the Torajan people, every bit as long, lavish, and expensive as weddings are in some places (such as parts of India). As luck would have it, the owner of the place we stayed in Tana Toraja (Rosalina Homestay, just outside the town of Rantepao) was related by marriage to the family holding the funeral, so he took us along to watch.

Guests (and a gift pig) by one of the painted rice barns typical in Tana Toraja

It’s customary for funeral guests to bring a gift for the host family—a pig that can be killed and cooked to help feed the assembled guests or a box of cigarettes that can be shared among them. (It seems as though most men in Sulawesi smoke like chimneys.) Being pigless and vehemently antismoking, I asked whether we could bring a different gift. Our homestay host said an envelope with some money in it was quite acceptable. (Some things cross cultures.)

Torajan funerals are generally multiday affairs for which the whole extended family returns, along with in-laws’ families, neighbors, friends, and coworkers. The day we attended was one of the days for welcoming guests (called “sitting with the family”). After parking on a village road, we walked down a rocky path, along an earthen embankment through rice fields, and up a hill to a family compound of houses and rice barns. All around the square compound, temporary open-air shelters had been erected to hold the guests. Long bamboo poles divided the shelters into different “rooms,” each with a number on the front. We were directed to one of the numbered spaces and sat down on woven mats with people all around us, smoking and chatting. The mood was neither somber nor festive, just congenial, like at a reunion (which it was).

Pretty soon, women from the deceased’s family brought us tea and coffee and snacks (yellow cake, oblong cookies with sesame and palm sugar, and rice crispy treats without the marshmallow.) On one side of the square, on a balcony of the house, a photo of the dead woman and a capsule-shaped coffin covered in red cloth looked down on the crowds of people. The deceased was in her mid-80s and had a large family with many great-grandchildren, so the gathering was large.

The days of receiving guests are sometimes combined with the days for sacrificing pigs and water buffaloes. The Torajans measure wealth in buffaloes. Besides being useful for plowing and fertilizing rice fields and providing meat, water buffaloes are status symbols in Tana Toraja. Strong bulls can cost many thousands of dollars, while those with unusual features (white skin or a horn that curves down rather than up) can cost US $50,000. Torajans believe that sacrificing buffaloes at a funeral not only honors the dead person but allows the buffaloes to accompany the deceased to the next life, providing a source of wealth there.

The size of Torajan funerals is measured not by the number of guests but by the number of buffaloes killed. Anything over 24 buffaloes is considered a very large funeral, although the grandest can see more than 100 animals sacrificed. (In funerals of people from the highest caste, the sacrifices take place in ancient circles of standing stones rather than at home.)

The funeral we attended was considered a big affair, with nine buffaloes sacrificed—enough to guarantee the matriarch a wealthy next life. Accumulating that many buffaloes for a funeral takes a family a lot of time and money, which is why funerals are often held months or even years after a person’s death. (In the interim, the body, embalmed and wrapped in cloth, is kept in a casket in a bedroom of the family home. During this period, the deceased is referred to as a sick person rather than as a dead person. To a Torajan, you’re not officially dead until your funeral ceremony, which is a genuine rite of passage.)

Before we headed to the funeral, I told our homestay host that we preferred not to see animals being killed, if possible. Whether on purpose or by accident, we arrived after some buffaloes had already been killed on the lawn in front of the coffin. When we got there, men with machetes were cutting up the carcasses. That bothered me much less than I’d expected. The meat was too fresh to smell bad; the only odors were the barnyard smells of grass and dung (almost outweighed by the ever-present cigarette smoke). I found it a bit hard to listen to the squealing pigs that were tied up to bamboo poles for ease of carrying, but I didn’t have to watch any being killed. And after that, butchering just felt like a routine (if messy) kitchen chore. The pig meat was salted, mixed with blood and chopped-up banana flowers, and packed tightly in bamboo poles, which were steamed over a fire. 

In the center of the family compound, between the house (where the coffin was) and the rice barns with their curved roofs, water buffalos were being sacrificed

Before the guests could tuck into their steamed pork, we made our farewells and headed to a local restaurant for rice and noodle dishes better suited to foreign palates. Before we left, though, our homestay host received a plastic bag full of buffalo meat that he and his wife planned to boil for their dinner. Neither Melissa nor I regretted missing the steamed pig or the boiled buffalo. It might have been tough to make polite faces while choking those down, and nothing about Torajan cooking led us to expect that they would be tasty. (Torajan food tends to be dull, rubbery, and lacking in seasoning.)

After the morning gathering, our guide took us to another village where a different part of Torajan funeral celebrations was taking place: water buffalo fights. From a viewing spot on the road, we looked down on crowds of people surrounding a bamboo-fenced enclosure. Money changed hands at a furious pace all around us as, one by one, a pair of big bull buffaloes—with their names spray-painted on their sides—were led into the enclosure.

The first pair we saw refused to engage each other, preferring to graze and wallow in the mud. Water buffalo are fairly docile by nature, so sometimes watching a “fight” involves standing around waiting for something to happen. That match didn’t count, much to the crowd’s disappointment.

The next one was much more dramatic. The two buffaloes quickly locked horns, and the green-painted one, strong as a locomotive, pushed the orange-painted one into a corner. Just when it seemed like a sure thing for green—and more money changed hands—orange broke loose, went on the offensive, and chased green out of the enclosure, to the mixed whoops and groans of the crowd. It was nice to see at least one buffalo come out on top on a funeral day.

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