The Toraja people of Sulawesi Island in Indonesia hold their annual festivals with their deceased loved ones in attendance. The corpses of relatives are dug up, cleaned, and dressed for the occasion — which is simply to show them off.
The Toraja People
If you asked the Toraja people, you’d soon learn that real love doesn’t stay till death do you part, it extends beyond that. The small community on the Indonesian Island sees death as part of everyday life more than a barrier. The Toraja people barely regard death as a final passing.
From an early age, Torajans learn to accept death as part of the human journey. They learn that death and burials don’t break the bond between family, and they will continue to have the relationship, much like it always used to be.
For instance, feeding the deceased every day and keeping them comfortable in a separate room in the house is customary in Toraja. And even afterward, families still visit tombs to celebrate the deceased ones in the Ma’nene festival.
Although Indonesia is predominantly a Muslim community, the Toraja community is predominantly Protestant Christian. But it’s almost impossible to tell with their devout practices of traditional rites that have been passed down for centuries and founded in animistic beliefs.
The Ma’nene Festival
The ancient Ma’nene festival that translates to a concept relatively similar to “The Ceremony of Cleaning,” is held yearly to celebrate loved ones who have passed on. Toraja people exhume their dead to throw them a befitting festival. They wash and dress them in fresh clothes and take family photographs with them.
Besides, the Ma’nene ritual allows Torajans to repair and replace coffins to keep the embalmed bodies from decomposing. First, the cleaning parties drag the bodies out of the family’s mausoleum then they open up the coffins to get rid of the smells. After this, the cleaning ritual begins.
Relatives brush and clean the body, cutting old clothes away, leaving the naked corpse standing in the sun to dry. Then, they clothe the corpse in new attire, so the family might get new photographs with the deceased and often parade it around the village.
They are Not Dead; Only Sick
Tongkonan houses are ceremonial homes for the dead. Families don’t live in them, but they store the embalmed corpses until they have saved up enough money to give them a befitting burial.
Funeral ceremonies cost thousands of dollars and can be postponed for months or even years before it holds. This is to give the family adequate time to prepare for the costs. The people of Toraja have taken to mummifying their lost loved ones, then housing them in ornate, colourful coffins till they can afford to give them a befitting burial. Most burial feasts lead many families to go deeply in debt because of the extravagant display.
Furthermore, to help dead relatives to continue living the standards they lived on earth, relatives buy expensive gifts so they can wear them in the afterlife. Some even go as far as buying a diamond.
Also, before the burial, families pay regular visits to the dead, talk to them, offer them drinks and food and even involve the deceased in family matters. They treat them as though they were still alive and only sick, not dead.
An Expensive Ancestral Trip
Torajans view funerals as the medium to send their loved ones into the afterlife. So they take extra care to prepare for the ancestral trip. Toraja people consider a funeral day as the most important day of a person’s life.
Funerals have as much as 5,000 guests and last for multiple days at a time. Buffalos are extremely important in the passage rites. The more of them are sacrificed, the faster the soul of the departed will find its way to heaven. Averagely, though, 24 buffalos are the suggested number.
Buffalos are killed at the festival, and the last breath of a water buffalo signifies the official death of the deceased relative. This marks the process of transitioning from “sick” to “dead.” Funerals cost as much as 250 million rupiah ( $18,000) and even up to a billion rupiah ($73,000).
Tourists have begun to find their way to Indonesia to experience and participate in the cultural rites of the Toraja people. Death has, therefore, become a source of livelihood in the community — with several guesthouses, farmers raising sacrificial buffalos, and artisans carving wooden tau-tau statues (lifelike wooden figures of the deceased to protect graves).
The practice of cleaning the dead is now ingrained in the culture and even sustains the economy of Toraja.
Mesak, when speaking of his “sick” mother Alfrida, who has been dead for 7 years but hasn’t passed into the afterlife yet says –
“… We don’t even think about the cost. She will be traveling to the realm of the soul, and we must send her off in our own way. It is our Torajan culture. It is what we do.”Mesak
Here are more photos depicting the rites of the Toraja people of Sulawesi Island.