Traveling to Toraja? Our Tips on Ceremony Etiquette

There's no place like Toraja, with huge funerals that go on for days, public buffalo sacrifices, and unique boat-shaped houses. All this with the backdrop of lush rice terraces.


Photo © iStock/Elena Odareeva

Tucked in the highlands of South Sulawesi, Toraja is far off the Indonesian backpacker trail of Bali, Lombok and Central Java. The burial ceremonies alone are worth the trip.

Funerals, normally intimate and secluded affairs in the West, are wide open for the public. Torajans believe that death should be celebrated, not mourned. It marks the passage of a person to the realm of spirits, a place much better than earth. No better reason for a party, they believe.

But this doesn't mean you should make yourself feel at home. A place so rich in tradition has its codes of conduct, and you don't want to be the ignorant bule flaunting them.

Here are a few tips to help you be a good tourist in Toraja, and experience the culture at its best.

Hire a Guide

There are only benefits in hiring a guide in Toraja. Guides know where funerals are taking place and they know the protocol to follow.

They're a familiar face when introducing you to the families of the deceased, and they act as interpreters. They can also answer all your questions about the history and customs.

Guides normally find you, but in case they don't, head to Mart's Café in Rantepao. They love hanging out there.

Exploring Toraja Without a Guide

It's entirely possible to explore Toraja without a guide. Here are 7 ways to navigate your way around, and experience the cultural traditions.

1. Find Out Where the Funerals Are

Toraja has dozens of villages, and a funeral could be taking place in any one of them.

To discover which ones, you'll have to do a lot of footwork and ask many people in central towns like Rantepao: hotel receptionists, restaurant owners, shopkeepers, rickshaw drivers, other travellers.

Not everyone speaks English, so learn some Indonesian.

2. Arrange Transportation

Find yourself a moto taxi (ojek) or motorized rickshaw (bemo) and agree on a price to take you to the villages where the funerals are happening.

3. Bring Gifts

Gifts are expected from guests at funerals. A carton of cigarettes is the standard offering. But you'll have to know whom to give it to once you arrive. 

4. Dress Appropriately

You'll see local guests in casual clothes. Some will wear T-shirts and shorts. But you are not a local, you are a representative of your country. Respect the Torajans and your own origins by wearing long pants (or skirt) and a something better than a T-shirt.

5. Respect the Rites

You'll find Torajans to be a laid-back bunch. You can freely circulate around the funeral site. But when it's time for major rites, like processions, groups songs, buffalo sacrifice, and anything involving the coffin, know your place. Stand back and let the families do their thing.

6. Ask Before Taking Pictures

This should be obvious anywhere, but there is no shortage of tourists who treat locals like zoo creatures. It won't hurt you to ask, and you'll get a yes almost every time.

7. Accept the Refreshments

You might be served snacks and palm wine at a funeral. It's generally impolite to refuse, so have at least a little.

Watch the video of the ceremony here.

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