The art of grieving in Tana Toraja, Indonesia

The hike to Diya’s village passed through saturated rice paddies and villages scattered with traditional saddle back roofs. In passing, there is nothing except the shapes of women’s backs bent crooked over to husk rice or men taking a break under trees to puff on tobacco. Water buffalos stop their grazing to stare at the thoroughfare. We stop at houses along the way and Diya introduces her uncles and aunties and seemingly endless number of relatives or neighbours she called her own. In Torajan society, it is commonplace that each village is a single extended family, where marriage to other members is often used to strengthen kinship and enable the sharing of tasks, rituals and family debts. At the top of the ridge is Diya’s home, a simple wooden block on stilts overlooking the terraces and villages below. Legs race down the wooden steps and I could see the smiles before I even reached the open courtyard.

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‘You haven’t met grandmother yet’, whispered Diya as we crept across the floorboards in the house next door. This home was aged and unkempt. Tunnels of cobwebs dangled overhead and the floorboards were wonky, providing a glimpse of the chickens running beneath the house. Only a slither of daylight entered the home from a broken window, illuminating the dust particles pirouetting across the room. There she laid perfectly still, a frail and elderly woman on wonky floorboards in a dark room. Not moving, not alive. Grandma was dead. Yet Diya spoke to her as if she was very much still sitting in the room with her. She introduced me and spoke softly in Torajan while looking back and smiling. There was no way what I was witnessing was reality. I stood in complete disbelief, keeping eye contact with the shape on the floor. I was losing my mind. Following dinner, we were interrupted by a shrill cry from next door. The cry, now a gentle whaling from more than one person, grew louder until Diya finally said ‘Ok. You’ve finished. It’s time for the wrapping.’

More than twenty people crowded together in the dark room next door with Grandma. Her body was raised and lifted as the extended family took turns in putting on an item of clothing and eventually wrapping her in weavings. The men in the room lit cigarettes and women nattered as if they were at the local market together. No one was crying now. She told me that her Grandmother had died six months prior but the family could not afford a proper funeral so must wait. When asking why the funeral would cost so much money, I was given a single response. The Buffalo.     

Torajan culture is so far separated from any others in the world. At birth, the families are planning for death. Throughout life, they undergo an endless cycle of paying off debts to others while attempting to care for or purchase their own buffalos to be slaughtered at a funeral. This tradition drives Torajan society. Depending on social status, as many as one hundred buffalo can be slaughtered at a person’s funeral. For the lower class, even funding less than ten buffalo can be a struggle so the family can do nothing but wait and embalm the body until the time has come. Cash crops are sold and remittances sent home from other family members to invest in a large stocky creature that spends all day in mud baths. Children drop out of school to care for the family buffalo or attend funerals of extended family day after day. Women weave traditional clothing for the ritual while men sharpen their blades ready for the sacrifice. It is living life for death.  

I stare at Diya as we descend from her village onto the road back to Rentepao, where she is studying at university. Diya is a modern young woman: educated, speaking impeccable English, and uploading pictures to Facebook from her phone. She greets her group of giggling friends with hugs and we take photos together before saying goodbye. It is like a scene you would see on the sidewalks of anywhere in the world yet there is one significant difference. Diya was born a Torajan. No matter how modern or connected the world becomes around her; no matter where she goes or what she does, Diya will walk down the road of Aluk To Dolo. The Way of the Ancestors.