A shawl covered her head, but as she turned it fell away revealing the lined face of an old woman. Her skin was a rich weathered brown. There were smile lines around her mouth, but today her eyes were red and puffy. Tears ran freely down her cheeks. She leaned forwards again, her two hands gripping the side of the coffin, her chest heaving. It was a last goodbye and it was a painful one. From now on she would face the life of a widow, her bed empty, her heart broken. There was the click of a camera shutter as another tourist took a photo.
Holiday and funeral are two words that should never go together, but if you are visiting Tana Toraja then a visit to a funeral ceremony is almost obligatory. Everybody you meet, from the receptionist at the hotel to the local tour guides talks about them. They will know when and where the next funeral is being held, how big it is and how many animals will be slaughtered.
During the peak season, from August to September, the region will fill with tourists and backpackers anxious to attend the large funerals where dozens of buffalo costing tens of thousands of dollars will be slaughtered. It is these funerals, more than the stunning scenery, cool climate and great coffee that Tana Toraja should be famous for that draws the crowds. So like the other tourists that come to the highlands of Sulawesi, I found myself attending a Tana Toraja funeral ceremony and I felt deeply uncomfortable.
Imagine for a second it’s your grandfathers funeral. As you sit in the funeral home surrounded by your friends, loved ones and family, a group of tourists quietly walks into the back of the building accompanied by a tour guide. The tourists listen quietly and nod wisely as the tour guide explains about your funeral customs. Then the cameras come out and the tourists start snapping away. Not satisfied with the view from the back a few of the braver tourists will push themselves forwards to get a better angle; after all, what’s the point in attending a funeral if you don’t get some good photos? They are on holiday after all! At this point, in most Western countries, one of the guests would have a quiet word with the tourists and kindly ask them to p#%s off, or just given them a damn good kicking.
All of these thoughts and more crossed my mind as I sat there watching the woman crying at the funeral service in Tana Toraja. Instead of staying at the Tana Toraja funeral ceremony, I decided to walk off into the fields and rice terraces surrounding the village. I didn’t want to intrude any longer at this funeral.
I know exactly what you mean about feeling awkward taking pictures being a tourist. There’s a difficult balance between being respectful and getting great pictures!