9/24/2015 –

**Warning: Not recommended reading for the faint of heart or weak of stomach**

“I’ve never bought cigarettes before,” confessed James as he passed over 150,000 rupiah (about $10) for a carton of Nikki, the local favorite, conjured up from the nearby home of a roadside vendor. Why were we buying cigarettes deep in the Torajan mountains on a Monday morning? Because you never show up to a funeral empty-handed, of course.

A flight, an overnight in a very shady hotel, a 10-hour drive up twisting mountain roads–it was all for this, Torajaland’s holy grail–a coveted invite to an aristocratic funeral. Funerals here are a lot like weddings back home–a vaguely religious, highly ritualized excuse eat, drink, party and show off your wealth. But wedding, funeral or otherwise, I had never seen anything like this.

imageAs we descended the road into the family’s tongkonan compound, we passed groups of people picnicking by the roadside, barbecuing skewers of pork from a freshly slaughtered pig laid on another blanket nearby. Vendors sold trinkets and snacks from makeshift booths; dozens of water buffalo, spraypainted with the names of their owners, grazed placidly in a central field; a cluster of balloons bobbed above the seething crowd (thousands were in attendance) as a man sold them to eager children; and with a tinkle of song–was that the ice cream man? It was, or the ice cream motorbike to be precise, two big coolers balanced on either side of his bike as he trolled for customers. It felt like we were at the county fair.

…until we walked inside. Live pigs tied to bamboo poles littered the walkways. Some seemed resigned to their fate, others breaking out in ear-splitting squeals as they fought valiantly yet futilely for their freedom. Considering what was happening in their line of sight, it’s easy to see why. In clusters, men worked tirelessly to deftly slice into pig after pig’s chest cavity and puncture a lung, avoid too much spilled blood so it could be used for sausage cooked in bamboo. Then with practiced ease, they sliced open their bellies and, up to their shoulders in entrails, collected them in a pile, then slit an artery to collect the warm blood in a bamboo tube. The next man in the assembly line then took over, using a blowtorch to burn off the hair and passing it finally to a team of men with machetes and cleavers to divvy up the meat for cooking. We watched, horrified and entranced–this definitely wasn’t the county fair. How many pigs would be slaughtered at this funeral (already in it’s fourth day and expected to continue for a week), I asked. “Oh, around 500, plus 100 buffalo!,” our guide asserted proudly. “This funeral is the biggest yet this year! You are very lucky.”


As we put the pigs behind us, we entered the central, ceremonial complex, hemmed in by brightly painted bamboo buildings. These buildings, which can take many months and hundred of thousands of dollars to build, are constructed especially for the funeral and destroyed afterwards. Due to the incredible expense of hosting a Torajan funeral, families will often save up for years after the deceased honoree has passed away. During this time of limbo, the corpse is embalmed (now with formaldehyde, traditionally with coffee) and their coffin in kept in the living room. Until the funeral takes places, the deceased person is referred to as merely “sick” and offered daily meals and conversation–this can take place for years or even decades. Contradictorily, bamboo tubes are installed in the top and bottom of the coffin to allow fluids to drip down and odors to escape from the obviously-not-just-sick body within.

imageThe focal point of this funeral was a grand pavilion displaying the brilliantly red carved teak coffin of the deceased on a raised scaffold. Below her was a podium facing a square used to sacrifice a water buffalo that morning. A fleshy skull and bits of bone and gristle still littered the bloodstained ground–the well-heeled funeral-goers, raucous drum-players and cameramen from Toraja TV simply stepped around them nonchalantly. In front of the podium sat the dead woman’s incredibly lifelike tau tau (a traditional wooden effigy). Uncannily human with wrinkles and all, she sat with hands outstretched communing with her family in this last hurrah to her life.

After her funeral concluded, her tau tau and coffin would be taken to one of the cave tombs favored by the Torajans. Her tau tau will join the dozens of others that line the stone-carved balconies carved from the rock face, arms forever outstretched, bridging the gap between the living and dead.image