Living trees and tau-tau

– We are going to visit a baby grave, said the guide.

– Oh, how interesting!, I replied, and continued on the path into the woods.

– Well, here it is already.

??? I didn’t understand a thing. There was nothing but a tree with some orchids growing on it. Ah yes, it was fenced off. And now that I looked more closely I saw that it had little doors all over it. This was the baby grave.

The custom is to bury babies who die before they start teething in a living tree. In this way, they continue to live with the tree, as it were, fed by the sap, their souls cradled by the wind. A tree can be used for dozens of babies.

The Toraja consider death the most important moment of their lives, the liberation of the soul from the material world. The funeral makes it possible for the soul to travel to the land of souls, Puya, and since it is an event of such importance, it has a great financial impact on people’s lives. They save money from a very young age and even borrow large amounts in order to organise as big and festive a funeral as possible for their parents and relatives. For a glimpse of what a funeral can be like, see my blog post “Shake that body!”.

The coffin can be hung from a cliff (and will then eventually fall to the ground), laid in a cave or put in a grave carved into a rock face with a balcony outside. The latter option is mostly for the wealthy. The graves are guarded by tau-tau, effigies of the deceased in the grave, representing their spirits, standing on the balconies. They stretch out their hands in a warm gesture, linking life and death.

In the photo here above you can see some hanging coffins. Note also that there are some skulls, I suppose they have fallen out of broken coffins.

The tau-tau are made from bamboo or wood, the type of which is defined by the status of the deceased, and are dressed in traditional costume. It makes for an eerie experience to stand face to face with them.

It was a bit overwhelming to attend a funeral ceremony and to visit the Toraja burial sites. Death is so natural to these people, part of their lives, nothing hidden, nobody is afraid of seeing or touching a dead (or “sick”, or “sleeping”) person. I’m still now, a month after I was there, trying to digest what I learned. I envy these people (but perhaps not the funeral costs).

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