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In Indonesia, in the mountainous regions of northern Sulawesi South province, live the following ethnic groups: the Bugis, the Makassar, the Mandar, and the Toraja.

The Toraja, called the mountain people, are upland rice farmers.

For the Toraja, everything possesses a spiritual essence: human beings, animals, and all non-living objects. Death is not a disappearance but rather a separation and a transformation.

They learn from an early age to accept death as part of life.

The body is composed of three elements:
– the spirit of life: which belongs to the physical body
– the life force: which exists in all objects, plants, the animals
– the black shadow: which represents the deceased’s double

Deceased considered as "sick" until the funeral

At the moment of death, the first two elements detach themselves from the body and disperse, and the third remains close to the body.

During the funeral ritual, the shadow (or double) leaves for a long journey to the place of the dead. The deceased, considered until the funeral as «sick», may finally access the dead status. The ritual includes songs and lamentations on a musical background playing with the «shadow flute»

This journey is described as a path that descends downstream of a river, in the west direction and to the left. The path is traveled on dizzying roads, in sadness, and sometimes the soul turns to see behind his village.
In the end, he crosses a river and enters into the other world, the world of the dead.

The corpse is embalmed, wrapped in a tissue, and placed inside the house, the head oriented to the east. Sometimes, the body is wrapped in a shroud decorated with gold. The dried plants lessen the smell of formalin, and, in time, the corpse starts looking like a mummy.

The body is kept for months, even years, inside the traditional family home, waiting for the entourage to be ready for the funeral. The deceased is considered and treated as sick. The family continues to talk to him, give him food, and drinks, to offer him clothes and cigarettes.

They organize divination sessions to discover the causes of death. The funeral process may vary by region and family rank inside the community.

These ceremonies are usually very noisy and take place without grief or tears because the soul passes into a better world. 

Toraja Deceased

It is a moment of joy since this ritual allows the deceased to access the status of ancestor and henceforth he can protect the living. However not all the dead become ancestors.

Deceased among figurines

The funerals are expensive since the familly has to slaughter many buffalo, invite a large number of guests for a long time, recite different stories, make certain types of offerings, dance, and play specific music. The sacrifice of a water buffalo marks the official death of the «sick». Without this rite, the soul does not find its way.

The festivities can last up to two years. Sometimes prosperous families gather together to welcome up to several thousand people. In general, they organize cockfights in homage to the greatness of the deceased’s soul.

The men dress in black, and the women dress in a traditional black outfit with red and orange embroidery.

The Toraja do not sacrifice the buffalo at the funeral of the stillborn, for the fetuses, for the poor, for the descendants of slaves, and for the children who died before they had teeth (the tooth is considered an unclean element).

When a baby dies, the parents wash the body, swaddle it in sheets and then place it in a small wooden box. They lodge this box in the trunk of a tree. The tree hollow, in time, closes itself on the baby’s body, which ends by joining Nature. A tree can hold up to 12 babies.

The final burial of the deceased takes place in a mausoleum or a stone tomb. They also practice the burial in tombs dug into cliffs, with balconies, where they place dolls with the effigy of the defunct.

These figures are made of wood or bamboo and represent someone who belonged to the nobility caste. The corpse is placed inside the cliff and in front of his tomb they place his effigy.

These statues are supposed to preserve the deceased’s soul and maintain the link between the dead and the living.

The communication with the invisible world, with the dead, the ancestors, and the divinities, is done through offerings.

Toraja Cemetery

For this purpose, the person responsible for the ritual places some cooked and raw food on a banana leaf and then prays. The food placed on the bottom part of the leaf is intended for the ancestors, and that on the top part of the leaf is for the deities.

In some northern villages is practiced a ritual called “the second funerals” or “caring for ancestors”. The family meets every year or every three years to exhume the deceased, clean the remains, and change the clothes before burying the body once again.

That moment is important for the family because it allows them to reconnect with the deceased, talk to him, to grieve. Sometimes, the relatives come to attend from far away, celebrate, share memories and honor their beloved deceased.

The plundering of graves is considered the most severe crime.

Buffalo horns on the pillar of the house to honor the deceased


Claudio Siebert, L’amour au-delà de la mort : les rites funéraires uniques des Toraja


Nathalie Kleczinski, En Indonésie, la tribu Toraja “enterre” leurs bébés morts dans le tronc d’un arbre



Julien Ermine,Les Toraja, le peuple qui fait vivre ses morts — Indonésie


Dana Rappoport, La fin des grands récits : Oralité et funérailles chez les Toraja d’Indonésie (île de Sulawesi). L’internationale de l’imaginaire, 2017




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