The people of Tana Toraja have a different but ‘beautiful’ understanding of death. It’s made Nandira ‘so proud’ of her culture

Nestled in the rolling green hills in remote Indonesia, wooden, angular houses peep through the clearings of lush forests that line the mountainous South Sulawesi region.

A thin mist blankets the steep ranges, rice paddies glisten in the sunlight, and smoke rises in the distance as a community goes about its daily life.

Day-to-day, its rituals are that of any typical community almost anywhere in the world. Children go to school and adults go to work, with sprawling, uninterrupted mountain views and clear skies. It’s a scene that feels familiar, even if only to the imagination.

It is this lofty, peaceful region that the Indigenous peoples, the Toraja, call home.

Fundamentally, their lives are no different to those in the Western world, but there’s one aspect that sets the Torajan culture apart from others.

Here, death and dying are handled differently.

To Torajans, death is not the end. It’s an extension of life.

Warning: This story discusses death and dying which some readers may find distressing.

A physical confrontation with death

It’s here in the landlocked regency of Tana Toraja that eight-year-old Nandira had her first encounter with death.

Growing up in suburban Melbourne, she had spent her life thinking death was something scary and foreign.

“To most people, death is scary, it’s morbid, it’s something that’s taboo,” she says.

“No-one really talks about it. It’s sad.”

But when her mother was told a family member had died in 2013, they ventured back to their roots in South Sulawesi.

It would be the first time Nandira would visit Tana Toraja — to attend the funeral of an uncle she had never met, and get to know her extended family.

What Nandira didn’t know was that the trip would be a life-changing experience.

“I knew I was going to a funeral, but I didn’t know it was going to be that elaborate, that bizarre,” she recalls.

“When I got there and I observed everything, I was amazed, I was confused, but I also wanted to learn more about this culture.

“I didn’t really quite understand it until I saw it with my own eyes.”

Arriving in Tana Toraja and entering the family’s tongkonan, a traditional boat-shaped house, Nandira was confronted with death almost immediately.

It had been over a week since her uncle had died, but when the family prepared to eat dinner, he was still treated as though he were alive.

Entering the room carrying a tray of fish, rice and spices, her aunty walked up to her husband, Nandira’s deceased uncle.

He lay on a bed wearing a clean, ironed batik — a traditional shirt — while a picture of Jesus Christ gazed over them in the room with intricate designs painted on the walls.

It would seem alarming to some, but Nandira says the room smelt only of a faint hint of sandalwood.

“He was treated with herbal treatments. That’s why the room didn’t really smell. The body was preserved,” she says.

Nandira’s family tended to her uncle to maintain his body until his funeral could be held — because funerals for Torajans are no small feat.

Living amongst the dead

The elaborate death and funeral rites of Torajans aren’t borne from religion — Dutch colonisation means the majority of the population is Christian, although a small percentage of people are Muslim.

Rather, dying, death and funerals in this part of Indonesia come down to cultural beliefs.

After a person dies, the immediate family follows a mourning period where the body is preserved using traditional herbal remedies.

The body then stays as part of the family where they are considered “to’makula” — a sick person — until enough money can be raised for an elaborate communal celebration of life, which can take weeks, months, or even years.

“It takes a while to plan everything to get the money, the resources … so they can preserve the body, get the clothes, and they have to build a small house as well,” Nandira explains.

Until the expensive ceremony, known as Rambu Solo, is held, families treat their loved ones as if they are still alive, and they are given offerings of food, water and clothing — just as Nandira’s aunty did with her husband.

This ceremony is essential. Torajans believe their family member’s spirit lingers on Earth — and it is only after this celebration that the soul begins its journey to Puya, the land of the spirits.

It’s a big financial commitment, but once enough money has been saved, families will purchase water buffalo to sacrifice, believing the blood spilt from the buffalo will lead the dead to Puya.

The more blood that’s spilt, the faster the journey is to the afterlife.

The ceremony is punctuated by dancing and feasts, before the coffin containing the body is taken to its final resting place.

Nandira’s uncle was taken to a small house built after his passing where he was laid to rest.

“But if you enter the house on any given day, the body is still there,” she says.

“Not like a skeleton underneath, you can still see skin.”

It is common for deceased people to be attended to by their families even after the funeral and burial.

Once a year, a ritual called Ma’Nene is held, where the preserved corpses are exhumed, groomed and dressed in new clothes, before being paraded through the village.

Torajans are entirely at home living among the dead.

‘I was so proud’

For Nandira, experiencing the funeral gave her a sense of pride, and helped her connect with her culture.

“The process to honour those who have passed as a community is beautiful,” she says.

“I was so proud to be part of it.

“They want to celebrate [death]. It’s a significant part of life. Birth, marriage, death — it’s all a part of your life and they want to celebrate it.

“They view that as the main part of your life.”

It has also changed how Nandira views life, death, mourning, and what may come next.

“I still view death as a very sad thing to go through,” she says.

“Obviously losing a family member is not easy at all.

“But it made me realise that maybe we shouldn’t be so sad, shouldn’t be so mournful.

“Maybe we can be happy that they’re living a better life. Maybe they’re at peace.”

The ABC’s Takeover Melbourne program gives a voice to young people across Greater Melbourne. If you would like to find out more about the next Takeover Melbourne intake, go to the Takeover website.

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