Baby in a Living Tree

Tana Toraja Travel Blog

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Deep in the jungles of Tana Toraja, Indonesia, a tree dating from 1000 B.C. lives on, drawing nourishment from the bodies and souls of babies who died long ago. This tree, a giant, many-branched Banyan, is covered in scars—some healed over and barely visible, others more fresh and pronounced—the scars of baby graves.

In ancient Torajan society, passieeiran, literally “baby grave in the living tree” was part of a circle starting with a comfort for grieving parents and ending with a transition from death into new life. This is a fictionalized account of the first baby to become one with the living tree.


When Daud was born, his mother knew that this life was not to be his. He fought against her, against the world, for hours in that first, dark night. In the daylight, Daud’s family came to his mother’s side, worried branches spreading wide across their foreheads: this baby would take his mother’s life. But Daud’s mother knew this, her fifth son, was not going to break her; he merely wanted to stay inside where it was safe, protected, warm. Daud’s father and brothers begged him, “Come out little one. The sun is up. It is time to wake.” His mother whispered inside her head—inside her womb—“Come when you are ready son. The world will wait.”

And Daud did come, eventually, when the sun went down and the nighttime wrapped itself around them again, entombed them. Daud came out screaming, fighting the world, fighting life. His father and brothers held him in their arms saying, “He is strong. He will live a long life.” His mother whispered, “He is strong. He will fly long and far.”

When the sun came up on the second day, it spread across Daud’s little face, branches of sunlight reaching out to him. Daud followed. He breathed his last and smiled a toothless, baby smile. His mother held him up to the sky and prepared to take him home.

His mother wrapped him carefully in funeral cloth, soft and smooth as baby silkworm thread. His father and brothers yelled and cursed the sky, turned their faces, branched with fear and anger toward the sun, asking, “Why?” His mother whispered an answer, “He was not meant for this earth, this womb. He belongs in the womb of the living tree.” His father and brothers’ anger, hot as the sun, boiled over. They found the tree, deep in the jungle. They took stones and knives and fingernails to the bark until they believed that they killed the Banyan—the strongest, biggest tree in the jungle. But they didn’t kill the tree; they dug out a space just big enough for baby Daud. His mother called it passieeiran, baby grave in the living tree. His mother Daud in the trunk of tree, his baby face turned upwards to the sky, the sun, the stars and the top-most branches. Here, Daud took nourishment from the sap of the tree. The tree took nourishment from the body and soul of the baby.

Hundreds of years passed, and the tree became mother to other babies. The tree thrived, healing over the bodies of the babies, healing over the doors of the baby graves until only the small scar—the slightest suggestion of birth—remained. And when it was time for the mother tree to let them go, the babies, unable to crawl or walk, flew up to papua—heaven. If you look closely, you can still see the youngest, tiniest babies up in the eves of the Banyan tree as it rocks them gently to sleep, comforting them, holding them close before they go to into the sky.

TravellingAuntie says:
I loved the death rites in Torajaland - even the baby in the tree. I met some of my cutest kids there! Enjoy!
Posted on: Feb 22, 2010
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Tana Toraja
photo by: yuness