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The High Price of Death in Torajaland

In Torajaland, the living owe the dead a debt. The price is high.

Sulawesi is famous for many things: diving, trekking, its volcanoes and beaches. But, Torajaland is known for its dead. The funerary rites of Torajaland fascinate travelers from around the world, namely the famous tau tau cliff burials with bamboo effigies. But it is the sacrifices that have come to be known as one of the darkest events in cultural tourism in Southeast Asia.

To see the massacre of dozens and even hundreds of animals at a Torajaland funeral is not a sight for the faint of heart. Many may not ever wish to see such a thing. Mainly, the sacrifice is that of water buffalo – with albino buffaloes the rarest and most expensive – but there are also pigs and horses. Machete hits throat after throat as mourners sing their barely audible dirges over the screams of the sacrificed.

The minimum for a traditional Torajaland funeral is six water buffalo sacrifices. For the people of Torajaland, it is a high price indeed; my guide tells me that some women joke that they don’t want to marry Torajan men because they spend all their money on funerals.


There they stand, side by side, guarding the dead.

To the people of Torajaland, the more sacrifices mean the deceased will reach their journey’s end faster. Relatives sometimes save for months or years to give their loved ones the best chance. The sacrifice is only one part of the intense funerary rites of this land. There are also dirges, cockfighting, and the cleansing of the bodies. Death is important to the Torajans, as it is to everyone. Through the sacrifice, the dirges of the mourners can barely be heard over the squealing of the pigs.

Many may be surprised to learn that the majority of Torajans are Christian – indeed, the region boasts the largest Jesus statue on earth – and the sacrifice of these animals ends in a massive feast. Travelers will notice that the uniquely-styled Torajaland homes are covered in buffalo horns. Death is a sign of status.


After the brutal sacrifices, songs, and dressing of the body, the corpses are placed in a stone grave in the cliffside, the most famed area of which is at Lemo. Eerie wooden effigies, known as a tau tau, are situated at the site to look after the dead. There they stand, side by side, guarding the dead. Only the best of Torajan society can afford such a lofty burial.

In the rock face where the bodies finally find rest, some find a home more than 30 meters from the ground; the higher the status, the higher the resting place. The cliffside burials are not perfect. In the past, ropes have snapped and corpses have fallen clean through their coffins to the ground below. Even then, the care for the dead is not done; the ma’ nene festival in August sees the bodies removed from their tomb for cleaning – a sort of second funeral – in which the bodies are sometimes paraded through the streets.

But these fantastically grim funerals are more than just a curiosity; they are a crystal clear glimpse into a shared human culture – a past where we all stood together and agreed that we wouldn’t be afraid of the dark.

For the longer, uncensored video, visit this link.