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DEATH AND ANCESTOR WORSHIP:
THE STRANGE BURIAL PRACTICES OF TANA TORAJA, INDONESIA
                                                               
                                                  By Diana McLeod                                               2016

        The bones were balanced precariously on the edge of the decaying wooden coffin, almost as if they were leaking out of it like tears, A couple of skulls had already tumbled out, and they also looked like they wanted to cry, alone and abandoned by their fellow eternal bunkmates. Shipwrecked on a lonely ledge, high up under the overhanging cavern ceiling, they were left high and dry, their only solace being that it were fortunately out of the reach of would-be grave robbers looking for macabre tourist souvenirs...

HANGING COFFINS: Nobody knows when the custom of hanging coffins first began in Sulawesi, but many speculate that early settlers might have migrated there from ancient China, where the suspension of coffins along cliff faces was once a common practice.

        Today, the best place to see them is in Tampang Allo. They're tucked into a secluded limestone cavern on the edge of the village. Most are hewn out of massive trees, with intricately carved and decorated lids in the same boat-shaped style as Torajan houses. One of the local guides told us that coffins that have been carbon dated, and some are over nine hundred years old, carved out of virtually indestructible mountain hardwoods.

        It's quite an experience, entering the caverns. Outside, life is vibrant. Dragonflies and butterflies patrol the edges of the rice paddies. Purple morning glories and tropical irises create bold brushstrokes of vibrant color along the banks of the brook, especially when seen against the impossibly green backdrop of baby rice plants. It is a joyous, sunny morning. Two steps later, over the tiny footbridge, and I've crossed the Rubicon. The sun is gone, and the cold, damp of the underworld has swallowed me whole. Inside, I am greeted by grinning death; A pile of skulls forms the welcoming committee. The atmosphere still seems to reek of mortal decay, even though this burial site probably hasn't been added to for at least fifty years. Above, just below the crushing weight of the cave ceiling, haggard groups of Tau Tau effigies of the dead stare longingly at the half-light streaming into the cave entrance, almost as if they know they could never pass into the bright sunshine ever again. High above the cavern floor, some of the suspended wooden coffins still hang in space, supported on long poles. They are like hardwood ships, bravely floating on against the tide of dripping dampness and cancerous wood rot. Part of me is fascinated, but the better part of me wants to leave quickly and breathe the sunlit air again. The encounter with death does not frighten me, but I've lost all desire to linger. I'm still alive, and it's time to go.

BOULDER BURIALS: As we left the city of Rantapao behind, the road twisted upwards through bamboo forests and rice fields. Banks of paddies cascaded down the hillsides like sets of watery stairs, and each step held its own unique reflection of the sky. From one viewpoint, high up on the mountain, they looked like glittering pieces of a shattered mirror. Here and there were random round boulders, interrupting the harmonious patterns of the paddies like poorly placed punctuation marks. The farmers had stoically worked their way around them, sometimes using them for edging.

        Some of these gigantic rocks were "occupied." They had little carved doors in them, marking family burial sites. Square tombs were chiseled into each rock face. and the little chamber inside would house many family members, with the latest deceased person put in on top. Group burials were especially practical in this area, since the rock was granite, and it would take a grave sculptor a year or two of chiseling solid rock in the tiny, cramped space to carve out a new tomb. Occasionally, photos or effigies of the deceased were left outside the entrance. One or two tombs had lost their doors altogether, and you could glimpse the piles of bones inside.

        The best place to see a boulder burial was called Lokkomata. The rounded stone itself was over three stories tall and at least a hundred feet long. It jutted out of a hillside, right beside a small waterfall. This behemoth was virtually peppered with burial chambers on all sides. There must have been fifty tombs in this one rock. A condominium cemetery.

TAU TAU: EFFIGIES OF THE DEAD: The village of Lemo was the most impressive example of this bizarre custom. Beneath the village, there was a limestone cliff, and little tomb chambers were carved into it at various levels. However, the most dramatic and interesting aspect of the place were galleries of Tau Tau. Long, indented "porches" were carved into the rock face, and carved wooden statues were standing on them. They were wooden sculptures of village ancestors who had been entombed in the cliffs. Their shell eyes stared out, unseeing, over the valley; blind spectators to the changes made by the living. The oldest ones had ragged, tattered clothing, and bits and pieces of their wooden bodies had fallen away. It was eerie to see their hands outstretched, as if they were beseeching the living to remember them kindly.

        The village of Londa had newer Tau Taus, which were actually made to look like the real person. They had personality, individual facial characteristics and jewelry, hats, scarves, purses, canes, and other distinguishing features. Several statues even wore glasses. According to one source, the Tau Tau makers from that village had gone to Bali to learn the art of realistic wood carving.

INTO THE DARKNESS: The most macabre encounter of all was in the caves at Londa. This village had a vertical cliff face with a long, multi-roomed natural cavern at the base of it. The interior was accessible with a hired local guide holding a large Coleman lantern. Only members of families who have ancestors interred there are allowed to bring "guests" inside.

        A few steps into the twisting passage, and we had left daylight entirely behind. Stacks of moldering coffins were all around us, piled in heaps and stuffed into every crevice. There were no fresh bodies, thank goodness, but there was still an odor of decay. It felt as though we were viewing a cemetery from below, down in the Underworld. Cans of opened soft drinks and cigarettes adorned some of the newer coffins, left for the dead. to enjoy. Coca Cola would be proud, I thought.

        I was the last person in our group to exit the cave. Was it my imagination, or did the darkness behind me suddenly seem to swell with malice, and did I feel a chilling draft on my shoulders, as if skeletal hands were reaching out for me? Surprisingly, no. The cave didn't feel haunted at all - the Torajans honor their dead so intensely that there don't seem to be any malevolent spirits lingering here... at least not while the sun was still shining outside.

BABY GRAVES. At first, this seemed to be the strangest burial tradition of all, but later, as I thought about it, I grew comfortable with the idea. The custom is this: if a baby dies in childbirth, or before the child gets its first teeth, it is interred inside a living tree. There is only one type of tree used for this, and the tree must be of a substantial size. A hole is dug into the tree, and the body is placed inside. A special patch is placed over the spot, made form beeswax and coconut fibers. The tree continues to grow.

        We counted about ten graves in one baby tree. Is this macabre? Maybe, but if I was a grieving mother, I would prefer my child to become one with the living rainforest, rather than buried underground.

CIRCLES OF STANDING STONES: There are many villages and burial sites around Tana Toraja with circles of megalithic raised standing stones. These stone circles are amazingly reminiscent of Stonehenge and other Neolithic sites in Western Europe. (Fans of Atlantis and ancient aliens can let their imaginations run wild now.) Menhirs stand as a memorial to the deceased ancestors. Even today, they still make them. There were four new ones in the field behind our guesthouse.

MA 'NENE- THE BIZARRE CUSTOM OF "WALKING CORPSES": Interment of bodies does not take place until the family has had plenty of time to prepare for the expensive funeral. In the meantime. the body actually remains with the family, in the home. The body is immediately embalmed and left to mummify, and the person is referred to as "sick," not dead.. The formal funeral and burial takes place several years later.

        Three years after the remains are entombed, family members re-enter the crypt, remove all the bodies, clean them, and dress them in new sets of clothes. They walk the corpses back to their home, in one of the strangest "family reunions" ever. Today, people even pose for "selfie" shots with their long-dead relatives. Their loved ones are re-interred after they've had a brief "holiday."

        We did not witness this ritual ourselves, but National Geographic, coincidentally, did a story about this aspect of Torajan culture this month, in the April 2016 edition. Take a look for yourself!

        Thanks for reading, Diana McLeod


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