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Sacrificial buffaloes at the rambu solo, or funeral, of Uru Philippus Possali and Albertina Allo, an elderly couple who died three months apart. Pictures: Claudio Sieber

Video | Living with corpses: how Indonesia’s Toraja people deal with their dead

The ethnic group treat the dead as merely sick, offering them food, water and even cigarettes, until the funeral is scheduled, which at a cost of up to US$500,000, can take several years if not decades


Talking, or even thinking about the subject may be considered taboo for many of us, but for the Toraja, death is a lifelong preoccupation.

Warning: This story contains graphic images.

An ethnic group indige­nous to the mountainous Pangala region of Indonesia’s South Sulawesi, about 800km northeast of Bali, the Toraja are nominally Christian – mostly protes­tant, but also Catholic – thanks to the influence of Dutch colonial missionaries. But they learn from a young age to accept death as part of life’s journey, and when a family member passes away, in accordance with their traditional religion – Aluk To Dolo (“way of the ancestors”), which sits surprisingly comfortably alongside Christianity – they are treated as if they are sick (toma kula). Food, water and even cigarettes are offered to the toma kula on a daily basis, because it is believed the spirit remains near the body and craves care.

Wrapped corpses are kept in the southernmost room of the tongkonan, the traditional Torajan house, because puya (heaven) lies in that direction, while to the north is where life is found. “The sick” must face west, though, because they are in transition.

Not until the first day of rambu solo, the funeral, will the family allow a body to face south, but that could be several months, in some cases even decades, after a person has breathed their last, when the family has saved enough money for a respectable send-off.

Until then, the odour of the formalin used to preserve the corpse will be neutralised with dried plants placed near the body.

The last breath of the first sacrificial water buffalo killed during the rambu solo ceremony marks the official death of a “sick person”. And the more buffaloes that are sacrificed, the faster a soul will find its way to puya. If none are dispatch­ed, it is believed the soul will never arrive.

Twenty-four is the suggested number of sacrificial buffa­loes for middle-caste funerals, although some guests will give additional bulls as gifts. In this case, the receiv­ing family is expected return the favour – by donating a buffalo of similar value – when the roles are reversed. As the animals can cost up to US$40,000 each at the Rantepao Livestock Market, etiquette is closely observed.

The price of a buffalo depends on the patterns on its skin, the length of its horns and the colour of its eyes, and each member of the deceased’s close family is expected to produce at least one.

The cost of a funeral – more than US$50,000 for lower castes and perhaps between US$250,000 and US$500,000 for the upper classes – helps explain why toma kula can remain in the family home for so long.

Some young Torajans feel trapped by the tradition, which, according to archaeological research, could date back more than 900 years; instead of buying a vehicle or visiting the tourist delights of nearby Raja Ampat, they are saddled with the burden of paying for sacrificial buffaloes.

Even after the three- to five-day-long spectacle of the rambu solo ceremony – when the deceased are finally buried in a mausoleum or stone grave – they are not left to rest in peace.

Every one to three years, a clan will gather for the ritual known as ma’nene, when the dead will be taken out of their coffins, cleaned and given a new set of clothes. Relatives from far and wide come to celebrate ma’nene, feasting, swapping stories and honouring the deceased.

Ma’nene isn’t about death, it is a celebration of love that goes beyond mortality, inspired by the legend of Pong Rumasek, a hunter who found a corpse under a tree. He carefully wrapped the body in cloth and buried it, and by doing so was blessed with good luck and a long life.

Claudio Sieber is a cultural lifestyle photographer from Switzerland, based in Southeast Asia