2016
07.06
FUNERARY PRACTICES-13

GALLERY OF TAU TAU

SYNOPSIS:  Cruising Toraja Villages in search of funerary practices. 

For two days I have been on the back of Yussuf’s bike and my butt is getting sore…  But the final count is in for evidence of the different funerary practices of the Torajans.  I think it is fair to say that Torajans live and earn money to be able to pay for proper funerals. You will be judged by your community for the way you send off your loved ones.  Nothing matters more.

As someone who will be happy with a cardboard box or my ashes blown into the four directions, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this concept.  I find it as appalling as huge weddings in the West which leave newlyweds with years of credit card bills to pay.  But I will try to hold judgment. 

Yussuf was quite amused that I kept pressing him to show me what the poor people do.  It isn’t on the usual program. What the rich do is of course a lot more spectacular and a big draw for tourists.  But he finally found examples of funerals from the bottom up, six and up in all, depending on how you count.  All of them are still practiced, one fell by the wayside with conversion to Christianity. 

#1:  Ground Burials:  When you are poor — and I mean really poor like a day laborer with a bamboo hut — the community will help the family to collect enough money to slaughter a pig in your honor and put a hole in the ground with a tiled grave on top.  Really, the poor man’s grave in Tana Toraja looks like most graves and cemeteries I have seen in the West. 

#2:  House Burials:  Quite typical for most Torajans middle-class and up are what I will call Funerary Houses.  They are often made of concrete or they may be tiled.  Some fancy ones, sport columns and look like little temples, others more like a tool shed with a small door at eye level.  These houses are big enough to hold generations of coffins.  If ground conditions allow it, a basement will be dug under the house and coffins will be stacked up from there.  If need be, a wooden floor can be added to hold the next set of coffins and so forth.  I guess, eventually you will fill up the house, but by then the lowest layers may have rotten away and made more room.

#3:  Rock Burials:  In some rocky areas, and if the appropriate boulders are part of your family’s property, you can dig out coffin-sized holes into the boulders and push the coffin into it.  It may take 6 months to carve out such a hole — an expense not affordable for lower-class burials.  There is only one coffin per hole and as many holes per boulder as possible.  In Boti I saw what is most likely one of the largest boulders.  More than a dozen coffins have been fit into that single one. 

#4:  Cave Burials:  Again, you need the appropriate terrain containing natural caves, and you need to own them, but there are many families with burials like this.  If you are lucky enough to own a really sizable cave, as one of the families in Lemo does, you are set for generations.   A strict hierarchy will be applied even inside the cave.  The higher up your coffin has been stacked, the richer you were in life and the luckier you will be in death.  In fact, the burial hierarchy is a clear indication of what borders on a caste system practiced still in life.  You know who you are and especially in death you are not supposed to overstep your caste restrictions.  The bad news is that the caste hierarchy seems to continue in the afterlife.  Once poor, always poor.  Is that fair?

To enter the caves in Lemo you have to hire a family member with a torch-lantern to show you around.  I was quite shocked at all the trash strewn around but no, this was not trash.  What I took for garbage were offerings for the dead!  Bottles of water, cigarettes, coins, an umbrella, a hat.  You name it.  Some of the offerings are perishable or at least subject to weather conditions and don’t look so good any more after years of exposure, but nobody seems to take offense. 

At times, the coffins have rotten away and only the skeletons are left .  Exposed bones and skulls placed in niches are not unusual.  No problem.  You just leave your offerings with or on what remains.  And if you really want, you can re-bury the bones. But for that, a full-scale funeral ceremony has to be conducted.  And as you will soon find out, that entails a lot, and you might have second thoughts and just venerate the piles of bones instead. 

#5:  Hanging or Cliff Burials:  If you own a rock cliff, you can choose to bury your dead in coffins hanging way up in the cliff.  Costs for either hanging up a coffin or for cutting a hole high up in the cliff are prohibitive and naturally are reserved for the rich.  A few of these burials still exist, but not too many have been added in recent years.  However, entire burial houses can also be cut into the cliff.  One such project was under way in one of the villages.  We were told that it would take 2 years to cut a 3-4 meter house into the cliff to the tune of about $20,000.  Some family out there is doing just that…  Really, no expense is spared.  If you have the money you will spend it.  In fact, you are expected to spend it and not be stingy on the dead.

#6:  Menhir Cemeteries: This is not so much a new burial practice as an additional form of veneration of the dead.  Burials may take any of the above forms, most likely a house burial.  But once you are done with that, there is yet another task that follows if the family member’s caste standing warrants it.  Depending on how many buffalo were slaughtered at a funeral, you will carve a menhir or megalith from the surrounding rocks, transport it to the family cemetery, and bury it standing up in a circle of menhirs, each of which resembles a family member of the past.  50-cm tall stones indicate a burial with about 10 buffalo.  A minimum of 24 buffalo are needed for megaliths of about 2 meters.  And a 12-meter tall one indicates the slaughter of at least 150 buffalo. There were several of those at Boti… Obviously, this is a form of veneration limited to the richest of the rich. 

#7:  Tau-Tau:  Again, this is not another form of funeral, but an added form of ancestor veneration which will be combined with either of the above funerals, from house burial to cave or cliff burials.  Tau-Tau are 3/4 to life-size effigies representing the spirit of the deceased.  In family graves they are often displayed in galleries of several ones looking eerily down on you with their outstretched hands and their big eyes and their old raggedy clothes.  Old ones can be dated to hundreds of years ago and are more stylized and slightly smaller than the recent ones.  New ones strive for more realism.

Six Tau-Tau master carvers live in Tana Toraja.  I had the pleasure of meeting one in Londa and the luck to be able to observe him working for a while.  This one was in his seventies and on his fifth wife and 19th child.  Peak for him was to be husband to two wives in two different villages at the same time — an indication that multiple wives are not prohibited in Toraja culture.  But you have to be rich enough to afford them and contrary to Muslim culture, where up to four wives may live in one household, the women will not live in the same house or even the same village.  I did not ask about the number of grandchildren but they must be up there in numbers, too.  You bet, his funeral will be the event of the millennium when the time arrives. 

In a country where earning $30 per day constitutes a medium salary (that’s what I would make as an instructor at the university level), for him to earn $100 per day is the norm.  You can send him a photo of a deceased, and 20 days later for a mere $2000, you will have a life-size realistic bust which you can add to the coffin in a house burial, keep at your home, or display in a gallery of Tau-Taus.  You can also have it shipped anywhere. 

Yussuf in all seriousness tried to convince me to commission a bust from him. Haha.  Very small busts can be had for $300 and full-size figures for about $3000 and up.  The master claimed that he learned his trade in just 24 days from a master before him. Perhaps, he was exaggerating a bit?  But he has been carving for over 40 years by now and what he did not learn in those 24 days, he certainly has picked up in the decades thereafter.

#8 Tree Burials:  This is the most unusual funerary practice and the one that is no longer practiced.  It stopped with the arrival of the Dutch.  A few reminders of it can still be found in various places around Tana Toraja, the largest and best preserved example at Kambira.  This kind of burial was reserved for miscarriages and children who died within the first year of their life.  The fetus of the child or the small body will be placed in a coffin and a hole will be carved into a tree just like it would have been carved into a cliff.  I am surprised that the tree does not die from this practice or perhaps it does?  This particular one at Kambira seemed both dead and alive.  The big trunk stopped right above the dozen+ graves in it, but new sprouts had grown from there and still made for a very sizable specimen.

I am sure this is more than you ever wanted to know about funerals.  But get ready.  These are just the theoretical practices.  There is a lot more to actually doing one. 

I will attend a high-class funeral.  I guess, this is a bit of an oxymoron to say this about a funeral, but I am looking forward to it.

Good night.

3 comments so far

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  1. Fascinating and so well explained. The funerals practices fit the fussy character of the house. I was most fascinated by the tree funerals and that the tree stay alive. Something strange and wonderful about that …

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for the description which is, as you said, probably more than I really needed to know about funerary practices. Somehow the way in which the living are so beholden to the dead that they spend all of their resources like this makes me think of Easter Island.

    Strangely enough, a friend visited 20 years ago and gave a similar account. She said she had met people who were really struggling to afford the funeral that they believed appropriate to the status of their relative.

    Does anyone question the wisdom of carrying on?

  3. Enjoy!