In Indonesia, a Region Where Death Is a Lure

The death rituals of the Torajan people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, are unusual and elaborate, and seeing the Torajan culture close up is affordable.

Comments: 20

  1. I've been to the fascinating, elaborate, multi-day funeral rituals in Tana Toraja and thought this review was puerile and uninformed. I really don't care about Mr. Kugel's demeaning and sarcastic opinions about the circumstances of his trip--the people, food, accommodations. Families of the deceased prepare for the funerals for months, building huge structures to accommodate hundreds of people and the ceremonies of singing, dancing, bullfighting, food preparation, speeches, processions are dizzyingly magnificent and even joyful. What a missed opportunity for Mr. Kugel and the readers.

  2. I have been there, too, and agree with DonaE. We spent 5 nights in Sulawesi and it is by far the most interesting travel experience of my life. In addition to the funeral rituals, we learned about the important culture surrounding rice cultivation, harvest, and storage and the Torajan reverence for water buffalo, visited a world heritage site, watched a man work on chiseling a person-size hole out of solid rock using only a hand-held chisel (which our guide told us would take a year), learned about cacao and coffee cultivation, and saw palm sugar being extracted from trees using a primitive bamboo apparatus. And we learned so much more about ordinary Indonesian and Muslim culture from our delightful guide. It was a once-in-a-lifetime exposure to a fascinating part of the world.

    And for those who would like to visit a place that is as beautiful as Bali but not as spoiled (yet!), try Lombok.

  3. That "person-size hole" to which you refer is in fact someone's [future] grave---because it takes so long to hand-chisel out that size hole in solid rock, the "grave digger" is constantly busy--just moves from one hole to another un-carved part. As for the slaughter of the buffalo, the smell of dozens of carcassed on the football fields where the festivals take place, after they lay there for many hours in the tropical lheat, can be a bit overwhelming to a non-native visitor, but then the villagers come with their parangs and begin to butcher the meat and lug off a leg, head, or other large portion back to their family or settlement---that may be their meat for quite a while---the buffaloes help them survive when the animals are alive as working stock, then continue to help them after death. By the way, much of TaTor is not Muslim, but Christian (usually Protestant); it's an area of Indonesia where many missionaries visited and succeeded; at least the Torajans gave up head-hunting/shrinking many years ago (or so they will publicly state; if you get off the beaten path and look closely at some of their stilted homes, you can on occasion see a shrunken head hanging outside---very good at keeping enemies and evil spirits/demons at bay, I guess).

  4. An interesting contrast to Grantland's article, also published today, on "The Act of Killing," and "The Look of Silence," two films about the massive Indonesian genocide perpetrated by the still-ruling government. This article blithely bumbles on about the quaint death rituals of rural Indonesians and their tourist attraction; that article delves into the mass death that actual Indonesians lived through and continue to live with, and that the international community has aided through complicity, silence, and of course tourist dollars-- the same silence and tourist dollars deployed in this article.

  5. Still ruling government, read again about our history, that genocide happen almost 30 years ago, already different govenment right now, Soeharto era end in 1998, i think you even never watch the movie

  6. Not the still-ruling government. The previous government, which was a brutal military dictatorship ruled by General Soeharto with the eager support of the US because he was anti-communist. The current government is a real republic, and the leaders are popularly chosen, in real, not sham, elections.

  7. "Men who used to be in death squads now hold local office; the victims’ families live in a state of constant, low-level terror. At one point, the optometrist’s mother tells us she sees people who helped kill her son while shopping for groceries. The movie’s other codirector, a Texan named Joshua Oppenheimer, compares it to a world where the Nazis won and everyone else looked away." - from Grantland's article.

  8. Why did Mr. Kugel not think of giving a bit of money to the elderly couple whose home they thought was a work of art and whose longsat they ate. They could have presented it in appreciated of the wonderful art and to help them maintain it, and it need not have been demeaning at all. Even a frugal traveler from the US could make a major difference in those peoples' lives.

  9. A few dollars to them would be temendous. They would certainly appreciate it.

  10. I won't be critical, for this kind of article is to be expected, and probably even will be appreciated by many readers who likewise aspire to be "frugal travelers." But as an anthropologist, I find the information long on shallow curiosities that are bound to draw more wide-eyed tourists and short on the kind of "deep description" that makes anthropology so darned penetrating and insightful. Too bad, because so much could have been said about death in Torajan culture, and how the living relate to it, that may have engaged even non-anthropological readers. Maybe, just maybe, the potential insights might even have justified the trampled farm fields!

  11. "The result was reasonably tasty after a long day’s hike, but not enough to persuade me to invest if a Torajan chef wanted to open a place in New York." You can take the New Yorker out of the city...

  12. Finny how parochial New Yorkers can be.

  13. Eagerly awaiting Frugal Traveler's guided anthropological tour of Central Park East.

  14. Years ago while visiting Hong Kong, I took a picture of the eerily beautiful gravesites carved into the side of a hill. The young man sitting next to me on the train quietly told me taking pictures of the graves was disrespectful. Embarrassed and chastised, I put my camera away feeling like an Ugly American. I feel the same way when I see the pics at the center top of the NYT.

  15. You naively took fotos while being unaware it was local sign of disrespect. I can think of much worse.

  16. I suppose the slaughter of water buffalo doesn't cause animal rights activists and parent egged on children to demonstrate against this senseless, animal cruelty. The buffalo isn't as cute as Cecil the lion. Give them a pass and check out this cool tourist attraction of death. That or this just illustrates the insanity over Cecil and what seeks and gets approval. Who decides?

  17. Brings to mind, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) in Annie Hall:

    Duane: Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you’ll understand. Sometimes when I’m driving. . .on the road at night. . .I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The. . .flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.

    Alvy Singer: Right. Well, I have to – I have to go now, Duane, because I, I’m due back on the planet Earth.

  18. Please make your point more clearly.

  19. It is interesting to hear about someone's perception of another country's death rituals. Death - the loss of our parents or, heaven forbid, our children - is something that everyone has to come to terms with. This article seemed devoid of any emotional connection with loss. It seemed very disrespectful.

  20. I m an American physician who came to Indonesia in 2007 for work, and have stayed on. Seth, you nailed one of the main issues for westerners living here- trying to know when you are being lied to. Our concepts of truth are not the same as Indonesians'. Not telling the truth is not necessarily lying...actually, didn't President Reagan believe this? Also, using rooster fights to decide land desputes? Alot simpler and more efficient than paying lawyers. Nice read! Thx