“Go, go!” my guide urged me, “join in, take pictures!”


“But it’s a funeral” I said, hesitating, “I can’t take pictures at a funeral!”


And yet I did.


Attending a Batak Funeral in Sumatra.


When we drove past the Batak funeral in the morning and my guide said he’d take me later, I was excited but also apprehensive. You just don’t go crashing funerals where I come from.


In my culture funerals are generally sad, serious affairs and while the general public is usually able to attend, you normally wouldn’t go to the ceremony for a complete stranger. And if you did, you would never take pictures like a gawking tourist.


But here it seems to be ok.


Attending a Batak Funeral in Sumatra.


I was staying in the small town of Tuk tuk on the island of Samosir in Lake Toba. Lake Toba is a giant volcanic crater and it’s a stunning area. It’s also the culturally rich home of the Batak people.


A Batak house on Lake Toba, Sumatra.

A Batak home on the shores of Lake Toba.



I’d hired a guide to take me around by motorbike for the day, and while I really, really didn’t like him and he was a terrible guide, taking me to a Batak funeral was the one thing he got right.


Attending a Batak Funeral in Sumatra.


The funeral was down a steep hill from the road, and as we entered the area I was apprehensive about being there, but aside from a few looks of interest people didn’t pay me much attention at all.


Attending a Batak Funeral in Sumatra.


The space was colourful. People were dressed in their finest clothes, with beautiful woven scarves draped over their shoulders. Large signs with writing made of flowers surrounded the area. I think they must have been some kind of tributes to the deceased.


Attending a Batak Funeral in Sumatra.


I hung back at first, reluctant to join a crowd of grieving relatives, but my guide encouraged me forward and I gradually became more brave. And as I did, the people welcomed me with smiles and waves and curiosity.


Attending a Batak Funeral in Sumatra.


Some were sitting on mats on the ground, snacking and chatting. There were musicians behind them, playing drums and cymbals and oboe-like instruments.


Attending a Batak Funeral in Sumatra.


And in the middle, near the coffin, was a ring of people, all facing inwards and dancing, moving around the circle in time with the music.


Attending a Batak Funeral in Sumatra.


As I approached, some women in the circle made space for me to join in, and for a short time I moved with them, watching and listening without actually understanding anything that was going on.


Attending a Batak Funeral in Sumatra.


I held my camera awkwardly, still feeling as if it was entirely inappropriate to be snapping heaps of photos, but also fascinated by the whole thing and wanting to document what I was seeing.


Occasionally the music would stop and speeches were made, I assume maybe some sort of eulogy for the deceased, who otherwise didn’t actually seem to be a central figure in this event.


Attending a Batak Funeral in Sumatra.


My guide said later that it was an old person who’d died and it hadn’t been unexpected, so perhaps that was why there was not a strong atmosphere of sadness. While people didn’t look particularly happy, it was still more a celebration of life, a gathering of family and friends, and perhaps a bit of relief that this person’s time had finally come.


Attending a Batak Funeral in Sumatra.


I didn’t stay long, because despite the relatively cheerful atmosphere and warm welcome I had received, my own culture was stuck in my brain and I still felt awkward about being at a Batak funeral when I am not a Batak person! Due to the language barrier I was not really able to get information about what was happening or to know for sure if it was really ok for me to be there snapping pictures.


Attending a Batak Funeral in Sumatra.


So we moved on, leaving behind one of the most awkward and yet fascinating experiences I had in Indonesia.


When have you ever unexpectedly found yourself intruding on what normally, for you, would be a private affair? How were you received and how did you feel about it?




  1. Very accurate description of what happens at a batak funeral. From a westerner adopted into batak culture for marriage purposes, the celebrations of marriage and death look similar to me. With a non-existent palliative care system in rural North Sumatra, a death of the elderly can become a blessing and a massive relief to the closest family members who cared for. But by God, hundreds to thousands of people can attend these ceromonies/funerals.

    • Thanks for your insight Robert! This funeral certainly didn’t have thousands of people, but they were quite friendly! Even in my culture, a death can be somewhat of a relief if the person has been sick for a long time, but I can imagine even more so when there are no resources to draw from for care.

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