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Tana Toraja, Indonesia

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Families in Toraja proudly display the bullhorns from the funeral ceremonies as they connote wealth.

The sweet smell of blood hung in the extremely dense, humid air. Rain fell sporadicly and the next shower was upon us. Sludgy mud welcomed us as we approached the ceremony heavy footed. I felt out-of-place and unsure of what to expect; Funerals aren’t comfortable even when you are invited, so imposing on this one was even stranger. What came next was hard to stomach but absolutely unique in every way.

Tucked away in the highlands of Central Sulawesi is a place so culturally and historically rich that visitors from all over the world come just to witness the tradition of the famed and gruesome funeral ceremonies. Families spend years and thousands of dollars commemorating life and the journey to the afterlife. In order to prepare and save for the ceremony, the family often waits years before affording a proper burial. It’s a monetary and emotional investment. The body resides in the home of the family until being properly laid to rest, and this can take months up to several years until completed. Even more spectacular than the ceremonies, it seems life hasn’t changed much in some of these rural villages over the past 100 years.

Having heard of these intense, gory funeral ceremonies in Toraja peaked my interest and had me quite anxious. I couldn’t shake the feeling of contradiction as the atmosphere of death was juxtaposed by the stunning scenery of lush, tropical forest and green rice fields. According to our guide, this funeral in particular expected 3,000 guests over the course of 4 days, hailing from all around Indonesia. Hundreds of guests were watching, standing around in black garb with accents of gold and other vibrant colors. Some women had bright orange beaded costumes on and were smiling large. Suddenly, the shrill scream of pigs in the distance made my nerves ring, our guide said they knew death was coming for them. What a horrible sound the poor, panic-stricken screaming pigs were making. The most astonishing sound came from the pigs. Everywhere the eye could see, pigs were either lying prostrate on the ground, tied to bamboo or they were viciously struggling, grunting and shrieking the most terrible shriek. The hardest part was watching men stab them in the sides, emotionless and as a matter of fact, hoping their shrieks would die off with them. My first reaction was to turn back, but then I remembered, this was Tana Toraja, the land of glorified funerals and of a completely different outlook on death and the afterlife altogether. I had to experience this, gore and all.

For this particular funeral, the ceremony was larger and more expensive than most. The deceased was a prominent businessman in Papua and it showed. The setup was decadent and impressive. As a gift to the family, guests brought a total of 400 pigs to be slaughtered and offered 100 buffalo, some albino buffalo as much as $40,000 each. Down the stairs and in the middle of a large open field covered with mud and blood, a bamboo platform held several men as they hacked away at buffalo carcasses. Bone, blood and bamboo. The sound was particular and didn’t stop the entire time we were there. With all this meat being cut to pieces, I’m more than positive a large amount went to waste, getting carried away with the rain. Tied to the trees and standing in the rainy mud, six buffalos waited sheepishly for their turn of eventual slaughter, some with spray painted hide belonging to the prominent gift-giving guest. I felt sorry for them. I looked around and it was so chaotic, I’m not sure mourning here would even be possible, but the family and friends chatted cheerfully. Music played and behind us, a circle of men in red swayed and sang “the sad song”, breaking their grasp to welcome me into the circle.

Usually, once the funeral is over, the deceased are laid to rest in a stone grave carved out inside a limestone cliff face or placed in cave tombs. The youngest babies get placed inside special trees to prevent soul stealing thieves from robbing their chances of making it to the afterlife. These thieves believe special magical powers can be procured from a young baby as it soul goes up towards heaven. Needless to say, the death of a loved one is a lengthy experience to endure in Toraja and continues years after the burial ceremony. Ma ‘Nene’ (The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses) involves removing the box coffin from the tombs (every few years), and the corpses are then removed so they can be cleaned and redressed.

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Buttu Kabobong in Enrekang. Locals call this Erotic mountain.

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One of the several cave burial sites throughout Toraja.

Outside the cave in Londa. Family members of the deceased believe that their loved ones can still enjoy guilty pleasures even in the afterlife. Cigarettes and beer were this couple’s guilty pleasure it seems.

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A look inside the dark, cramped and eerie cave burial sites in Londa.

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Our guide took us into the dark and eerie cave tombs of Londa.

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Not all coffins are tucked away within the cave. Coffins like this laid on the floor and out in the open.

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Dolls resembling the likeness of the deceased, placed outside the caves.

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Father and daughter in Londa.

His lucky day. This buffalo got to graze on grass, avoiding the bloody massacre going on down below at the funeral ceremony.

This buffalo got to graze on grass, avoiding the bloody affair going on down below at the funeral ceremony.

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A boy in Kete Kesu.

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Hides drying after the rain.

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Kete Kesu, the left behind bamboo structures from a past funeral ceremony.

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The main arena for the funeral we attended.

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Bulls near the chopping block of the ceremony.

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A bull gets led to the slaughter.

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Over 400 pigs were slaughtered for this man’s funeral and it was very difficult to watch. This particular pig looks happier than he sounded. He grunted and struggled until someone eventually came and slit his throat.

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These buffalo were huddled around the chopping block and knew something was wrong. In Toraja, the number and type of buffalos sacrificed is correlated to the deceased’s wealth. Albinos are said to cost upwards of $40,000.

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An elder carries fresh meat off the chopping block. Tagged buffalo stand in the back waiting for their fate.

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The family and friends walk somberly around the butchering platform as traditional music plays.

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The rest of the procession.

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Young Torajan children dressed in traditional garb.

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We stuck out like sore thumbs at this ceremony, however, many tourists can come and watch if they pay a small donation to the family out of respect.

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These adorable kids wanted so many pictures taken of themselves.

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A circle of chanting men, holding hands and singing to the guests of the ceremony.

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I was lucky enough to enter the circle.

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This lady was well prepared. It rained shortly after.

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Family members can work for as long as 6 months to chisel away at the rock face. Once the cavity is made, they lift the coffin up using bamboo ladders and rope.

Family members can work for as long as 6 months to chisel away at the rock face. Once the cavity is made, they lift the coffin up using bamboo ladders and rope.

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The fog permeated the afternoon skies.

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Used to lay babies to rest, this tree grave is said to protect the babies from soul snatchers who wait above the ground to capture the soul and use it for magical purposes.

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A school of Indonesian children excited to see tourists in their village.

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Stone graves in rock faces are very common in Toraja.

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An elderly woman carrying goods on her back. We saw her walking up the treacherous hills 30 minutes later.

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These are the colorful and boat-shaped traditional Tongkonan houses that are peppered all over Toraja.

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In Kete Kesu

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Wood carving in Kete Kesu

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