I went to Rantepao to attend a funeral. Not the funeral of anyone I knew; any old funeral would do. Rantepao is a town on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia and home to the Toraja people. “Do you know of any funerals happening in the next few days?” I asked the guides hanging around my hotel. It felt an odd question, like I was enquiring about a rafting expedition or a trek up a volcano. But here death is a way of life and tourists come just to experience and learn about the local culture.
The Toraja are a fusion of animist and Christian. When the Dutch were in this part of the world, like so many other misguided colonial powers, they attempted to “civilise” the local communities and so missionaries were dispatched to convert. Many of the old traditions were lost and today the people worship in church, but when it comes to dying, the old ways survive. The Toraja believe the spirits of animals accompany the deceased into the afterlife and many buffaloes are sacrificed, depending on your status. I saw 20 being slaughtered at one funeral, and with the average buffalo fetching over a thousand pounds you can imagine the costs involved.
Hot and sticky Makassar is a good entry point for Sulawesi and after a night in the city I took a ten-hour bus journey to Rantepao, the main tourist centre. It’s a dusty, scrappy, not particularly pleasant place, but the beauty of the surrounding scenery more than makes up for this. Tongkonan are the local buildings and these extraordinary structures with boat-shaped roofs rise dramatically out of the emerald green rice fields.
After a first day exploring the vibrant and extremely muddy buffalo market, I spent a whole day trekking in the north along the slopes of Gunung Sesean, a dormant volcano, where paddy fields cascade down endless terraces. I took a guide as it’s quite hard to find your way around and he took me to places I would never have gone on my own, fording streams and climbing the terraces strewn with ancient volcanic boulders.
The next day it was time to get to grips with the local culture, or, more specifically, death. When a relative dies, the body is embalmed and kept in the house for days, even months, while the family saves up enough for the funeral which takes place over several days. My guide took me first to one on its third day and the family were pretty wealthy, judging from the number of buffaloes to be slaughtered. I had mixed feelings about watching this. On the one hand, it’s part of a unique local culture and the buffaloes are eaten so it’s not a wasted activity. However, the butchery is quite barbaric and the animals die slowly. I watched the first buffalo bleed to death in front of me. It’s a deeply distressing thing to look into a creature’s eyes as it dies. After a few more I’d had enough.
The second funeral was in its first day and involved moving the coffin to a temporary pagoda for the few days of the ceremony. A group of paid singers surrounded the coffin for a song and then lunch was served. Afterwards, the pall bearers carried the coffin uphill to the pagoda, but it was a perilous journey as the ground was extremely muddy. The ornate roof of the structure housing the coffin then got stuck in some overhead wires and had to be sawn off. With the proceedings threatening to turn into farce, the bearers set off again, but on the slope up to the pagoda, they encountered another problem. Even with the top now removed, it was still too big to fit inside and it caught in the entrance and tipped precariously to one side. There was an audible intake of breath as the pall bearers lost their hold on the coffin and it almost went tumbling to the ground. For a few moments I simply couldn’t bear to watch, but finally, after more sawing, the coffin was finally in its temporary resting place and the ceremony could continue.
Later my guide took me to see various burial places around the region. At Lemo, an old site, the bodies are buried in stone graves carved into a cliff overlooking rice fields. Also present, are tau tau, wooden effigies carved to resemble the dead. At Tampangallo the coffins were placed on shelves in a damp cave, but over the years the wood has rotted and bones have fallen to the floor. Unable to afford another funeral, the families have kept the remains in the open. Most disturbing of all was Kambira, the site of a decaying ancient tree where babies were buried in hollowed out cavities.
It may all sound a bit gory and macabre, but I think the Toraja have quite a healthy and positive attitude to death. It is very much part of life here and funerals are big social occasions. As a tourist you are made to feel very welcome and, most importantly, you don’t feel like you are intruding or being ripped off in an event staged only for tourists. You are encouraged to take some gifts. If your budget won’t run to a buffalo, cigarettes are also accepted. It’s a unique and fascinating culture and well worth the trip.