The cult of death

Sulawesi island, Indonesia

The experience we had in just 5 days was much more intense than what we could have expected. We were suspended between life and death.

We have encountered, more than a different culture, a cult unknown to us, the cult of death. We move to Sulawesi, a very large island, but we visit only a very small part of it, the Land of the mountain people, the Tana Toraja region, in the central area of ​​South Sulawesi. For many Toraja people, life is still centered on death. Being able to offer an important funeral to their dear departed is often a commitment for a good part of their lives. Depending on the caste and therefore on the economic possibilities of the family, the funeral is held after a week, after months or even years after death. The family that we met, has been keeping the body of a relative at home for ten years, in a very specific room, in a very specific position, inside a coffin, completely dressed, combed and made up. To maintain the body, a formaldehyde syringe is injected. They bring her food and drink every day. She is treated as if she were sick, not dead, Tomakula is the name in their language. There is no real separation between the living and the dead. In the meantime, the families save money, and they also had to sell some of their rice fields. The elderly mother would like the funeral to take place as soon as possible because she is afraid of not being there anymore, while the brothers want to wait to offer her a funeral worthy of her. Many families have ruined themselves in order to carry out the funeral. The guests will be hundreds, or thousands if the deceased was a known person. Entire families that come from the surrounding villages will bring offers, who can afford brings pigs. In the Rante, an open field, temporary houses are built, where guests will stay for the entire funeral that can last up to 5 days, and the body of the deceased will be placed in the highest house called Lakkian. Guests shall be given food and drink for the whole duration of the ceremony. The funeral begins with a prayer in the courtyard of the family of the deceased, a moment of great emotion for all of the guests. It then continues with a long procession to the open field, the atmosphere changes completely and becomes very festive. At the head of the procession the buffaloes, bought with many sacrifices by the family members, are led  with great effort. The most valuable, pink with black spots, can cost as much as 40 thousand euros. They are considered sacred animals and are offered in sacrifice. The Toraja believe that the soul of the animal must accompany that of the deceased on the last journey to Puya, the resting place, Paradise. Buffaloes, which are strong animals, load the deceased onto their back, while pigs, which are intelligent animals, choose the fastest way to get to the Puya gate. If the family can afford to sacrifice at least 24 buffaloes during the funeral, then it can also have a Tau Tau to be made. This is a wooden effigy of the deceased in natural size, wearing his clothes, and it is placed in a niche near the grave, as high as possible so as not to be stolen, as often happened in the past. The tombs are dug in rocky walls, in caves or built in concrete and in this case they call them "the house of the dead without smoke", since there is no hearth. Inside the tomb the wooden coffins are placed or the bodies are simply wrapped in blankets. Every 3 or 5 years, in the dry season, the Manene is performed, the ceremony of covering the dead. If the body is inside a wooden coffin, the clothes are changed, if instead it is only wrapped in blankets, some of them are added or replaced. There are dozens and dozens of families that decide together when to start taking the bodies out of the graves, to leave them in the open air for several days before starting with Manene. The atmosphere is incredible, chaotic, sad and festive at the same time. We clearly did not understand what they were saying, but their gestures were very clear and strong.