Growing up in a western culture, the word death causes fear and discomfort

Death is like a dark shadow following you until your last day has come. 

Death brings with it sadness, grief and suffering. But it doesn’t need to be like that. Travelling the world, I was fortunate enough to come in contact with ancient cultures and traditions which have a very different approach to death.

When I was visiting Sulawesi, one of more than 17.500 islands that make Indonesia, I was confronted directly with death. This experience is a perfect example of how travelling can change your whole perception. The island is inhabited by the Torajan people, a tribe thousands of years old. The Torajans do not have a special relationship with death. Actually, for them, death is something completely normal — like a birthday or a wedding. It is a celebration

indigenous tribe from sulawesi indonesia in traditional clothes

When an elder dies, the whole village comes together for a grand family event. The festivities can last many days and the highlight is the parade of the dead — where the coffin is carried throughout all the village, accompanied by praying, singing, dancing and even wild jumping.

Until this expensive funeral can take place, the bodies of the dead are cared for in the homes of the family — they treat their dead like they are still alive, giving them food and water every day. This is a sheer sign of respect. When the family has collected the necessary funds for the funeral, the celebration takes place. 

I was fortunate enough to witness one of these spectacular events when I was visiting Toraja. And it was absolutely breathtaking. The dedication and passion with which the people of Sulawesi were showing respect to their dead were impressive. Some customs were really strange to me, but because I did not know them before.

death ceremony of toraja - men in black standing in a circle
praying circle at a funeral rite

In order to honour the dead, a water buffalo (or more than one if the person was considered very important) is slaughtered during the festivities. Experiencing the slaughter of an animal left a long-lasting impression on me because I truly love and respect animals, especially my cats. But more than the animal it was the people who astonished me. 

While the buffalo was bleeding out on the ground, the children were laughing and playing joyously around it. 

I could barely watch, and the kids were not even a little bit impressed by the scene. The meat of the animal is later shared with the whole village in a grand feast.

indigenous men from indonesia cooking
villagers preparing buffalo meat

After the slaughter, the fights started. Buffalos as well as chicken were forced into a brutal fight for death. A very difficult thing to understand from the mind, so I tried not to judge but rather respect their long-lived tradition. The richer the family, the more animals are sacrificed. 

The Toraja people believe that this sacrifice makes it easier for the dead to move to the land of the souls.

Death is a celebration of life. Even years after the funeral, the mummified bodies of the dead are still cared for — the family keeps cleaning, dressing and even spending time with their dead. From a young age every Torajan is confronted with death and like this, normalizes it very quickly. If a baby dies in Toraja, it is not put into the earth, but joined with a sacred tree — so that their soul can be reborn. I very much honour this reconnection with nature, as this is where we all came from.

Death is something natural. It happens when it needs to happen. Unlike us Westerners who try to deny and prolong death as much as possible, ancient tribes still have the respect and natural connection to this yet another stage of life

Enjoy this little video of my journey to the land of Toraja:

If you want to know more about the best places to visit in Indonesia, I recommend you to get a Lonely Planet Travel Guide for Indonesia (I always use them for my trips).

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