Tana Toraja: Journey to the afterlife

In Indonesia’s Tana Toraja, it is traditionally believed that death is not a sudden, dreaded event, but a gradual process toward Puya, the land of souls or afterlife. When a death occurs, the community comes together at the sound of a gong to do what they can to guide the deceased to their ancestors in the afterlife, which is said to lie to the south of the homeland. Oft times, the funeral does not happen until months after the death as the family waits for all the relatives to return home.

Traditional animist beliefs have persisted despite the Christian influence of Dutch colonization. Animal sacrifice continues to be an important feature of the funeral proceedings, being a major conduit to aiding the deceased in their journey into the afterlife. Pigs are sacrificed as gifts of food that the deceased can give to their ancestors when they arrive, while water buffalo are sacrificed to help assure the deceased a quick journey into the afterlife. The number sacrificed depends on the social status of the person; in this case, more than 30 water buffalos over three days.

While the funeral proceedings may appear gruesome to outsiders, the rituals are meant to honour and celebrate the deceased. Spilling blood on the earth is considered a sacred act. Torajans do not take death lightly – a single water buffalo often sells for more than a brand new car.

All members of the community attend this event, both young and old. As such, this tradition and concept of death is passed on to the next generation.