In Tana Toraja, Indonesia, people save money throughout their lives but in pursuit of wealth; it is all expended upon death. In contrast to most societies, it isn’t the bounty of a life lived, but the extravagance of a funeral that grants status to a family.
Torajans cherish the eternal bond between the dead and the living, mummifying the deceased with the traditional shroud of leaves method, or by using formaldehyde. The family member is kept in the house as the funeral celebrations are prepared, a process taking months, even years in some cases. During this period, known as Tomakula, the spirit of the deceased is trapped in the body obliging the family to provide food and offerings twice a day.
When the funeral finally comes animals must be sacrificed in order to carry the spirit to the Torajan afterlife, known as Puja. The more buffaloes sacrificed, the faster the passage, with the horns displayed in front of the family house as markers of social status. Though agriculture long since dispensed with working cattle, the cattle markets thrive on the funeral business alone, with buffalo valued at between two and six thousand pounds (the blue-eyed albino buffalo being especially highly prized).
After the funeral, the coffin is taken to the graves where the ceremony continues with monolithic tombstones and sculptures reserved only for the upper-class Torajans who can afford to sacrifice a minimum of 24 buffaloes. However this is by no means a final goodbye, as every two years the body will be exhumed, washed and given new clothes before being carried around the town in a ceremony called Ma’Nene.
The ceremony for infant burials is quite different. No kind of purificatory rites are necessary, no slaughter of cattle, nor expenditure. Instead, the deceased children are sealed into chambers hollowed out of Tarra trees, chosen for their milk-like sap, a source of nourishment in death for the departed infants. As the tree then grows the bodies are absorbed by the plant fibres, and each year, the marks of the children’s burial chambers inch ever closer to the sky.